Authentic Violence: The Case for Autofiction


Heidi James-Dunbar


The recent surge in the publication and study of Life-Writing in its varied forms has largely been supported by the academic community, spawning dedicated research centres in academic institutions, journals and conferences and it would seem that the dominant view offered by this scholarly work contends that these writings are potentially both recuperative/juridical and are attentive to multiple gender, ethnic, national and historical contexts. Certainly these texts encounter interesting modes of representing self, identity, embodiment, temporality and authenticity.

But I tentatively offer an alternative view. It seems to me that the question of authenticity is problematic here for at least two reasons and this article will attempt to describe those problems and suggest another approach. Life-Writing is an experience-based textual production that could reasonably be described as a reconstitution of facts bound up in a quasi-narrative form. The ‘facts’ that constitute these offerings are of course open to radical interpretation and misrepresentation, and what of the gaps, the holes, the silences – the missing testimonies, lost letters, journals shredded and burnt, and simple, inevitable forgetting? What of these narrative fissures that open up and cannot be filled? How can writers piece together the episodes that delineate a life and adequately portray their subject faithfully recreating the complexity of experience?


Life-writing: is authenticity the best way to approach depictions of life in narrative form? [Image by louveciennes under a CC-BY-NC-ND license]


Michel Serres asks these questions in Who am I? ‘The self,’ he says, ‘is a patchwork resembling a Harlequin’s coat, a badly stitched tatter, a conjunction of adjectives. The self is ‘a mixed body: studded, spotted, zebrine, tigroid, shimmering, spotted like an ocelot, whose life must be its business’ (Serres 145). For Italo Calvino, ‘[e]ach life is an encyclopedia, a library, an inventory of objects, a series of styles and everything can be constantly shuffled and reordered in every way conceivable' (Calvino 124). How can authors ensure that the reshuffling of these objects, events, loves and adversaries is faithful to their subject? Is it possible to assure an authentic and faithful representation?

I would argue that it is impossible to ensure authenticity. It is inevitable that in attempting to make sense of a life-story (our own or another’s) we flatten it, generalize whilst attempting to particularize and unify fragments that contradict and usurp. The most complex and exquisite stories (and indeed, the most prosaic and banal) will radically resist interpretation. As Emmanuel Levinas writes, the other person ‘escapes my grasp by an essential dimension, even if I have him at my disposal’ (Levinas 39). This fact of ungraspability, that a person can never be completely known, and that in encountering another person, we encounter the limits of our power is what causes the life-writer to falter. An attempt to write accurately, invoking truth, utilizing so-called facts will fail. The other will always be out of reach. These difficulties bedevil the task of Life-Writing and it isn’t surprising that one doesn’t have to look far to come across accusations of falsehood or cruelty that greet the publication of many works of life-writing, which sometimes, as in the case Augusten BurroughsRunning with Scissors and Rachel Cusk’s The Last Supper: A Summer in Italy, result in legal action brought by the subjects portrayed.

So then, if inauthenticity is betrayal, and this betrayal is unavoidable simply because of the impossibility of rendering the multiple experiences of life to a single unified narrative from episodes secreted about time and space; what then of authenticity? What if it were possible to write an ‘authentic’ work? For Lionel Trilling writing in Sincerity and Authenticity, violence is central to the meaning of the word ‘authentic’ derived from the greek ‘Authenteo’ meaning to have full power over; also to commit a murder – ‘Authentes: not only a master and a doer, but also a perpetrator, a murderer, even a self murderer – a suicide’. So then here is another problem: if it were possible to write ‘truth,’ an act of violence is perpetrated. What Bruner called the ‘tyranny of the single story’ (Bruner 103). Therefore, if neither authenticity nor its opposite, inauthenticity, are standards against which the writer may seek to apply to their work, it is necessary to write our way towards another form of examining our experience.


Is is possible to write an "authentic" work of life-writing? [Image by Patrick Lanigan under a CC-BY-NC-SA license]


Objections against forms of representation including all forms of narrative have been with us since Plato. Levinas was especially skeptical of representation and the act of telling tales – these objections can be described broadly as thus: that stories risk fixing others within overarching systems of thought that lead to a kind of inhumanity – a trap that suffocates, that silences. But these objections also describe another fear. As Plato pointed out, art endlessly reduplicates things, producing copies and copies and copies of copies. Marina Warner writes that ‘Representation itself acts as form of doubling; representation exists in magical relation to the apprehensible world, it can exercise the power to make something come alive, apparently’ (Warner 165). 

This doubling, in a sense an idolatry, possesses magic and exerts power and brings to mind the myth of the Golem from Jewish folklore, a anthropomorphic creature created from mud and animated either by writing one of the names of God, or more significantly writing the word emet (אמת, ‘truth’ or ‘reality’ in the Hebrew language) on its forehead. The golem could wreck terrible havoc, and was often an agent of vengeance or protection. This creature, neither alive nor dead, and bearing the word TRUTH on its forehead could not speak – having no voice of its own – nor did it have intelligence, it could only follow instructions to the letter unable to exercise reason or judgement. A Golem would be deactivated by erasing the aleph (א) in emet to form met (מת, "dead"). Are acts of life-writing comparable with the creation of a golem?  I think so. Both reconstitute beings via words incanted and inscribed. They form an hermeneutic totality that declare a violent ‘truth’ and if the Golem and the text are ‘truth’ then everything else must be false. Both creations could be described as a moment of saying charged with the ontotheological. This theological connection isn’t new. The act of writing the facts of one’s life for the purpose of reflection and self-scrutiny can be traced back to the Calvinist tradition in which a form of diary-keeping was a religious act. Life-Writing is disturbing because it is undecidable, like the Golem. It is troubling because it is neither fact nor fiction, not alive or dead.


Like the Jewish Golem, life-writing is ontotheological: a creation charged with religious significance [Image by smokeghost under a CC-BY-NC license]


Of course for Nietzsche art is not an imitation of nature but its metaphysical supplement. In utilizing the tropes of figurative language and imposing narrative form, doesn’t any act of Life-Writing become a fiction anyway? And if so, why not lever that fissure between fact and fiction completely apart to assault the model of authenticity to better express the inexpressible. To embrace the silence that attends the words and do away with the fetish of truth. If Life-Writing does indeed reconvene the hierarchy of presence/absence, fact/fiction, then I suggest a re-thinking of Life-Writing that is brought about by not attending to facts; but a retelling that unambiguously fabricates and exceeds any hierarchy that pertains to truth. For if we consider that all ‘stories’ are interlinked by an immanent intertextuality and therefore are perpetually ‘in media res’ it is impossible to think of them as closed systems – they evade the tyranny of a genealogical structure. In fact, beyond fact, as selves we are knotted and tangled in multiple times, spaces, with shifting boundaries.  We are migrants. There are no self-enclosed unities. Any attempt at telling a factual account, a truth, is therefore always a lie. I suggest we follow Jean Genet, and ‘lie in order to tell the truth’. A truth not bound by the spotlight of fact but a truth that resides in the dark, that is discovered by the imagination and by art.

Perhaps, then, we can look to autofiction in which a narrative is constructed from our perception, understanding and experience that doesn’t declare any adherence to facticity, that doesn’t seek to interpret or gain mastery over a subject, but instead wishes to convey experience otherwise. Derived from the French term l'autofiction which was coined by Serge Doubrovsky in 1977 autofiction refers, as Rick Moody writes, to 'the stylized hybridization of fiction and autobiography as applied in contemporary literature' (Moody, n. pag.). Exemplary examples of such writing include Richard by Ben Myers, in which Myers imagines the last days of Richey Edwards, the late member of the Manic Street Preachers and Elfriede Jelinek’s The Piano Teacher, a novel that appears to follow some of the publically known events of Jelinek’s life. Freed from the tether of truth, these writers can explore themes, events and encounters, exposing raw reality as felt or imagined by them. This may not comply with a juridical description of truth and all its containments but perhaps it creates the space for truth to froth and overflow, to embellish and connect experience/imaginings (can they be said to be radically different?) with language and therefore communicate that which enables a genuine appreciation and comprehension of the ‘other’ peacefully, gently, ethically. It could be said perhaps that this places a romantic faith in art, but it seems to me that art and fiction in particular understand that the proper condition of truth maintains the secret at the heart of every telling, as Barthes tells us in Reponses, ‘any biography is a novel that dares not speak its name’ (Barthes 89).


Can autofiction free writers from the tethers of biographical "truths"? [Image by Jintae Kim under a CC-BY-ND license]


In undertaking a life writing that ceases to reach for the truth, the writer is free to engage fully with imaginative, narrative processes that might encounter a radical empathic symbiosis mediated via language.  This spinning of untruths, or even lies may achieve an essential distance that could provide us with the ability to look, examine and understand with a pacific gaze. Conjuring a tale-telling that exceeds fact and causality, that looks elsewhere for truth and produces a recuperative narrative without committing a singular act of violence by distorting or undoing the dialectic between truth and falsehood.  


This article develops work that the author previously published with Open Democracy.


CITATION: Heidi James-Dunbar, "Authentic Violence: The Case for Autofiction," Alluvium, Vol. 1, No. 3 (2012): n. pag. Web. 1 August 2012,


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Dr Heidi James-Dunbar is a lecturer in English Literature and Creative Writing at Kingston University. She is author of The Mesmerist's Daughter (Apis Books, 2007) and Carbon (Blatt, 2009), which is currently being made into a film. [/author_info] [/author]


Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. ‘Reponses’ (Interview) Tel Quel 47 (1971).

Bruner, Jerome. Making Stories: Law, Literature, Life (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2003).

Calvino, Italo. Six Memos for the next Millennium (London: Vintage, 1996).

Levinas, Emmanuel. Totality and Infinity (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Duquesne University Press, 1969).

Moody, Rick. "Introduction" to Gwenaëlle Aubry, No One, A Novel, trans. Trista Selous (Portland, Orgeon: Tin House, 2012).

Serres, Michel. The Troubadour of Knowledge (Ann Arbor, Michigan: University of Michigan Press, 1997).

Warner, Marina. Fantastic Metamorphoses, Other Worlds: Ways of Telling the Self (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).



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