It's the end of genre as we know it, and I feel fine

Where do you put a book?

The best drag of me ever written is that Jimmie Shive-Overly reads My Struggle in the final season of You’re the Worst. The FX show is about four friends who are, quite literally, the worst. Jimmie’s character is a British novelist living in Los Angeles who accidentally writes a bestseller when his raunchy period piece becomes fodder for housewife desire instead of major literary awards. As the whole series comes to a close, he is shown in many scenes reading the second book of Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard’s popular series.

Actually, that paragraph right there might be the best drag of me ever written now that I think about it.

My Struggle is a cocky, insane venture. It is a six book series (each book is like 500 pages) of story about Karl Ove Knausgaard’s life. “What is his struggle?” people ask me. Having read every book he’s written (that has been translated to English), I am the first to say “it’s not much.” Knausgaard’s struggle is that he is human, mainly. The series is worth is not because Knausgaard’s life was terrible. His life seems pretty idyllic actually. My Struggle is just a beautifully written book, and one that made me think about the world differently despite focusing only on a very attractive, six foot tall, white Norwegian man who drinks too much.

Last summer, I stood in the blistering Brooklyn heat to see Karl Ove in conversation with Maggie Nelson. The talk was actually less than fulfilling (truly surprisingly), but they did both face a question they must be absolutely sick of answering:

Where is the line between fiction and reality?

Knausgaard has branded his own series “auto-fiction.” What he means by this is unclear. The books are written like novels, but they are quite clearly realistic. Nelson, by contrast, goes with “autotheory.” These words, to be clear, mean nothing. In Friday’s subscriber only newsletter I wrote about how I organize my books. These are the books that give me trouble. Is the My Struggle series fiction as I have it now? Or should it be non-fiction? Should I just create a shelf for this non-sense category?

Autofiction is nothing new. It’s the genre of Rachel Cusk, of Jenny Offil of Knausgaard. But it also the genre of of David Shields, of Yuko Tsushima, of Virginia Woolf, or Proust, of Flaubert, of Baldwin and Coetzee and Saadat Hasan Manto; of America’s first black female bestseller Harriet Wilson.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this designation of genre and what it is for recently because I fell into a sinkhole where they only play Billie Eilish’s new album.

The album is… everything. It does not care for restrictions. In fact it actively ignores them. Where Taylor Swift has come out with a perfect branding for each album, Eilish is just doing literally whatever she wants. (Doreen does a much better job talking about Eilish than I can). Ultimately, what makes Eilish’s album interesting to me is that she’s willing to stretch, to go outside her comfort zone, to take a risk in the hopes of hitting the right tone.

The more I notice author’s bending genre— the more witchery in reality, personal anecdotes in a novel, lines from the internet in a poem —the more I realize that it’s not just flamboyancy. Genre is often treated as a starting point for writers. Do you write fantasy? Science fiction? Do you write memoir or poetry or fiction? But maybe it shouldn’t be. Maybe the genre tells us less about what the author is trying to do than the truth behind their work.

Autofiction as a “genre” seems to be an attempt to say that genre doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if what happens inside the covers of this book, it says, actually happened. Whether the details are accurate or the memory perfect is absolutely beside the point.

In journalism we are very strict about “facts.” Something is either honestly reported or it is not. A story is either fabricated, or it is reported. There is not much space for gray, for the areas between, for the pieces that don’t quite fit into either category. Our perceptions lie to us. If eye-witnesses are unreliable, then what is reliable? A video can lie. An audio clip can lie. A piece of writing can certainly lie. There is a very distinct difference between telling the reader “facts” and telling the reader “the truth.”

This year, the more I read authors who have written in multiple genres (particularly straight fiction and non-fiction) the more I’m realizing that genre is just another aesthetic decision to get as good of a story as you can. How do you get as close to the truth you’re searching for as you can? Do you need quotes and academic research? Or do you need… a fairy tale?

Honestly, maybe we should just sort all books by color or alphabetically after all.

In Friday’s subscriber only issue I will be making another AUTHOR RECOMMENDATION for someone who wrote a very close to autofiction novel and a bunch of weird as shit short stories. Join us!