This year, Fiona Doloughan, Senior Lecturer in Creative Writing and Literature, published her third monograph, Radical Realism, Autofictional Narratives and the Reinvention of the Novel (Anthem Press). She’s about to embark on a US lecture tour, so we caught up with her before her departure to ask about this latest book.
What initially motivated you to reconsider notions of realism, reality and the novel?
I was interested in exploring a number of potentially inter-related phenomena: the rise of auto/biography and memoir; the seeming rejection, on the part of some writers, of the novel – or at least current novelistic forms and expectations; and a sense on the part of some critics and writers that post-modernism had run its course, and that it was necessary to turn elsewhere for a literature fit for the 21st century.
I was also intrigued by comments made by Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk that seemed to echo a desire for an end to fakery and fabrication, which they associated, rightly or wrongly, with novelistic conventions (the need for plot, a narrative arc, a focus on ‘showing’ rather than ‘telling’). I wanted to investigate their desire to find forms of writing more attentive to the realities and complexities of experience. There did, in some senses, seem to be what writer David Shields terms a reality hunger (2010).
I have spent the best part of 30 years engaging with literature and particularly the novel. So Knausgaard’s dissatisfaction with invention and rejection of the kind of novel writing in which he had previously engaged, alongside Cusk’s experiments in a new kind of writing following the ‘creative death’ (The New Statesman, 2021) she felt she had undergone in the aftermath of her memoirs, prompted me to consider what was happening on the fiction/auto/biography/memoir front.
I wanted to understand the motivations of some successful writers who appeared to have turned their backs on fiction and were keen to stay closer to the outline, if not the substance, of their own lives. Rather than make things up, writers such as Knausgaard and Cusk felt the need to engage with the particulars of the world around them, seeing writing as a way of thinking through some of the big questions such as the impact of death and/or divorce on family life, what it means to be in love, the toll that having children can take on one’s ambitions to be a writer, and what it means to be a man or a woman at a particular life-stage in the 21st century.
Can you tell us a bit more about the terms ‘radical realism’ and ‘autofiction’?
The term ‘radical realism’ derives from prior usage in other disciplinary contexts (eg. politics, philosophy and art). I was particularly interested in its application by Caroline Levine (2000) to the work of John Ruskin; and to an article by Philip Tew (2001) on the work of B. S. Johnson. Bringing together ideas about predominantly literary realism/s with a focus on what might be seen as ‘radical’ in relation, for example, to Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series was of course tricky, given the already wide-ranging literature on various realisms (eg. social realism, psychological realism, hyper-realism, to mention but a few). However, in helping to situate Knausgaard’s seemingly radical attention to detail and to the minutiae, some would say trivia, of everyday life alongside his concern to overthrow conventionalized ideas about the novel and its investment in storied fictions, the term helped make sense of what otherwise seems like a contradiction in terms: the notion of ‘a non-fictional novel’, Knausgaard’s own description of his work which he deploys to confront and interrogate fiction as the creation and maintenance of a sustained illusion, while seeking to get as close as possible to the realities of lived experience.
The term ‘autofictional narratives’ in the book title was a way of flagging up current interest in ‘autofiction’, another contentious and increasingly widely used term that goes beyond its initial application by Serge Doubrovsky, academic, literary theorist, critic and writer, to his self-designated autofictional novel, Fils. I begin by rehearsing the history of autofiction as a primarily French phenomenon before looking briefly at the way in which its usage as a neologism in English has increased exponentially in the last 5 years. So, for example, if you plug the term autofiction into the library search function, you’ll find 4,506 entries across the period 1976 to 2023, a 47-year span. Of these, 3,464 entries span the last 10 years, while 2,421 relate to the just last 5 years. These figures constitute evidence of a boom in (talk about) autofiction and the autofictional.
Your monograph engages in detail with the work of four writers – Rachel Cusk, Xiaolu Guo, Karl Ove Knausgaard, and Jeanette Winterson. What led you to focus on these particular writers?
My case studies centred on writers who have written both novels and works either classified as memoirs or autobiographies or works that appear to ‘document’, at some level, aspects of their own lives.
Knausgaard and Cusk provide an interesting pairing as they share a rejection of conventionalized novel forms, and have each set out to get closer to lived experience in their work. They also share an interest in contesting societal and culturally sanctioned views of ‘masculinity’ in Knausgaard’s case and ‘femininity’ in Cusk’s case. And they have both managed to antagonize members of their own families as well as many readers through their painfully honest accounts, as they would see it, of aspects of their lives.
In the case of Jeanette Winterson and Xiaolu Guo, I didn’t anticipate many parallels, given their very different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. However, insofar as they both hail originally from humble origins and have had to forge their own literary paths, sometimes in the face of fierce opposition, and have both been, from the off, unconventional novel writers who have produced, unsurprisingly perhaps, unconventional ‘memoirs’, they turned out to have quite a bit in common. Indeed, their work as a whole can be seen to reflect a number of self-projections or versions of self along a fact-fiction continuum and their so-called memoirs unsettle ideas of what a memoir might be.
Fiona Doloughan’s research revolves around the development of the novel and on the forces (societal, cultural, technological, linguistic) shaping that development. She has published three monographs, the most recent of which is Radical Realism, Autofictional Narratives and the Reinvention of the Novel (Anthem Press, 2023).
On September 13, she’ll be delivering a lecture entitled Crisis? What crisis?: Rachel Cusk’s Reinvention of the Novel for the Twenty-first Century at Salve Regina University, Newport, Rhode Island.
On September 20, she’ll be at Agnes Scott College, Decatur, Georgia, giving a talk co-sponsored by the departments of English, French, and Spanish on what it means to be a female writer today.