Truth in Fiction's Clothing: The Subtle Distinctions Between Memoir & Autofiction

What's the difference between memoir and autofiction?

 

By David Griffin Brown

 

To what extent does your life inform your writing? And where is the line between memoir, autofiction, and true fiction?

Mystery author P.D. James once said, “All fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction.” That might seem like a contradiction, but it’s an important distinction when it comes to considering the differences between fiction and narrative nonfiction.

This understanding is crucial not only for writers but also for readers who are expecting authenticity and integrity.

All fiction is autobiographical in the sense that your characters and story world are drawn from your lived experience of people and places. Autobiography and memoir, on the other hand, are based on your subjective experience which has been filtered through your beliefs and misbeliefs. (And let’s not get started on the fallibility of memory.) In other words, your version of how the events of your life have played out does not entirely correspond to objective reality (if such a thing even exists).

While these blurred lines can be fun to think about, they aren’t all that helpful when it comes to determining a market for your autobiographical novel or memoir. Readers want to know what they are getting into. They want to know if you’re spinning fiction or rendering your personal experiences. Or something in between.

Consider what happened with the so-called memoir A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, a story he claimed was authentically based on his experiences with addiction. A few years after hitting Oprah’s Book Club and topping bestseller lists, the Smoking Gun came out with an exposé challenging many of Frey’s claims, in particular about his run-ins with the law. At first Frey maintained the truth of his story; he insisted that he’d only made the kinds of small changes that memoirists get away with—tweaks for structure or sequence or drama. Later, Frey admitted that he had first shopped his manuscript around as a novel, then had rebranded as memoir when he didn’t catch a publisher’s attention. According to Wikipedia, A Million Little Pieces is now labelled as a “semi-fictional novel.”

So would Frey have been better off calling his book autofiction?

Not quite.

Autofiction: An Exploration of Self

While the term autofiction is a portmanteau of autobiography and fiction, it is not merely autobiographical fiction. For example, John Irving’s novels are said to be autobiographical in that he draws on his experiences for certain threads, themes, and characters, but the overall plots are an invention.

The label of memoir comes with a promise: that the events described happened to you.  Autofiction, on the other hand, promises an exploration of self. It is not just a fictionalized account of the author’s life, but a rendering of true experience in the midst of fictionalization—in which embellishments or deviations from reality may provide a commentary on the author’s journey.

For example, a work of autofiction might include a third-person narrator. It might include scenes for which the author wasn’t present, or even from before the author’s birth. It might take place in another world. It might incorporate elements of magical realism. The purpose behind these embellishments is to provide thematic or symbolic insights into the author's exploration of self, even as the narrative remains grounded in authentic experiences.

Given the specificity of this definition (as originally coined by French author and theorist Serge Doubrovsky), there are not many autofiction novels that could be considered “household names.” Here are the top three according to an article by Nina Bouraoui in The Guardian:

  • To the Friend Who Did Not Save My Life by Hervé Guibert
  • Mars by Fritz Zorn
  • Practicalities by Marguerite Duras

Bouraoui notes that “Autofiction doesn’t arise from the urge to invent, to create a fictional other and tell a tale according to the rules of a particular form … It may not be the absolute truth the author is telling, but it is her truth as she lived and experienced it.” This sounds a lot like memoir, but in her own autofiction work, she explores her personal experiences along with those of her parents—specifically, the ways in which her parents came together that underlie her own identity.

For that reason, A Million Little Pieces wouldn’t fit the bill—unless, perhaps, Frey employed some device to tip the reader off when the narrative strays from reality, and in such as way as to provide commentary on his lived experience. But that would be a completely different book.

But are there really no household names in the autofiction genre? I think there are, but we either need to stretch the definition, or we need to consider titles that were not published or envisioned as such, especially publications that predate Doubrovsky’s first use of the term in 1977. For example:

On the Road by Jack Kerouac—this Beat novel from 1957, billed as fiction, is known to be directly based on Kerouac’s exploits, as well as his real-life friends: William S. Burroughs as Old Bull Lee, Neal Cassady as Dean Moriarty, and Allen Ginsberg as Carlo Marx. Much of the story is taken directly from notebooks that Kerouac carried with him on his travels. And it can definitely be described as an exploration of self.

A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce—as with On the Road, there is a stream-of-consciousness element to this 1916 novel, along with a third-person narrator (Stephen Dedalus). The surname Joyce translates to Daedalus, and it’s well known that, though considered a novel, the story is an exploration of the author’s spiritual and intellectual development. Again, it is an exploration of self through a vaguely fictional lens.

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath—around the time it was published, Plath acknowledged that the events of The Bell Jar were largely true, but that she made some changes for dramatic effect, and that she altered the names of people and places. Some have suggested Plath labelled the work as fiction to avoid scandal or embarrassment for friends and family. Yet her rendition was so true to life that, years later, a magazine colleague claimed some of Plath’s revelations had broken up marriages. As such, some might argue that the book is closer to memoir. In terms of the autofiction label, The Bell Jar is an acute exploration of self (amid a loss of self) as Esther Greenwood is hospitalized during a mental health crisis.

How much fictionalization can you get away with in memoir?

When it comes to truthfulness in memoir, the most important thing to consider is your reader’s trust. Ethical considerations in memoir are paramount; a memoirist must balance truth and narrative necessity without betraying the story’s integrity. If your embellishments are self-serving, whether to spin yourself as more knowledgeable or your experience as more profound, then readers aren’t likely to approve. But it’s fine if your tweaks or embellishments serve the story.

Lots of grey area here, so let’s look at some examples of what most readers would accept:

  • You want to protect the identity of someone close to you, so you change details like their name or profession.
  • The impetus for your goal—your inciting incident—took place gradually, in stages, in a way that would take up too many pages, so you boil these experiences down into one moment, one scene, one realization.
  • A close friend or family member involved in your journey offers little in the way of tension or complication, so you omit them from the story. Or perhaps you had conflict with this friend or family member at an earlier point in time, so you bring that conflict into the memoir’s timeline to help create a stronger emotional arc.
  • There is an anticlimactic gap in time between your greatest challenge and your final achievement, so rather than killing the pace and tension right before the climax, you bring these events closer in the story’s chronology.

Even though a memoir is based on true events, it is still a narrative. As such, the Two Pillars of Storytelling still apply. You need to immerse your readers, and you need to create enough emotional draw to keep them turning pages.

For more on the structural similarities between fiction and narrative nonfiction, check out How (and Why) to Structure Your Memoir Like a Bestselling Novel.

In Conclusion

The distinctions between memoir and autofiction are not just academic—they affect how readers approach and understand a writer's work. By navigating the nuances of these genres with integrity and creativity, authors can forge deeper connections with their audience. As writers, our challenge is to honor our narratives—whether drawn from the raw material of our lives in memoir or blended with imagination in autofiction—while staying true to our lived experience.

Join the discussion

Do you write autofiction? If so, what is your approach to blurring the lines of subjectivity?

What is your favorite work of autofiction?

Leave a comment below!


David Griffin Brown (Septimus Brown) is the founder and senior editor at Darling Axe Editing

David Griffin Brown is an award-winning short fiction writer and co-author of Immersion and Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling. He holds a BA in anthropology from UVic and an MFA in creative writing from UBC, and his writing has been published in literary magazines such as the Malahat Review and Grain. In 2022, he was the recipient of a New Artist grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. David founded Darling Axe Editing in 2018, and as part of his Book Broker interview series, he has compiled querying advice from over 100 literary agents. He lives in Victoria, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Songhees and Esquimalt Nations.

Immersion & Emotion: The Two Pillars of Storytelling

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