CEI Round Table: “Ego in fabula”
Prepared by Andrej Pleterski, member of the Vilenica Jury
The title of this year’s festival theme is, in terms of structure and subject matter, analogous to the well-known Latin idiom lupus in fabula. On the one hand Ego and Fabula, the traditional focus of the festival – namely, discussing authors who are present at Vilenica – is being extending as we deal specifically with the identity and position of the author in their own literary work; but at the same time it somewhat challengingly touches on the question of the autobiographical dimensions of the literary work, since it suggests something that should be spoken of in hushed tones. This year’s Vilenica Festival seeks to break this taboo that arises from the assumption of critical, literary-historical and other discourses that fiction or invention should generally avoid direct references to extra-literary reality, in particular when it comes to identifying the author with a narrator or other character, or uncovering autobiographical elements.
Yet it seems that contemporary, more or less sincere autobiographical writing calls for reflecting on both one’s character or nature and the many faces of one motivations. If writing about one’s own life and from one’s own point of view was once an idiosyncrasy of individual writers, such as Proust or Joyce, later the same type of writing appeared more frequently in literary testimonies about extreme situations (war, totalitarianism); if, four decades ago, the designation “autofiction” appeared – a genre that has been mostly the domain of French literature (Duras, Ernaux, Angot, Louis et al.) – in the United States the mid-1980s saw the beginnings of a stream that came to be called “New Sincerity” (Franzen, Smith, Eggers, etc.). Today, however, autobiographical writing is one of the main trends of most Western literary systems, and increasingly also Eastern ones (India, Japan…), even in traditional “unconfessional” cultures, such as those of Scandinavia (witness the Knausgaard phenomenon…).
Contemporary autobiographical writing – from traditional, chronologically arranged autobiographies that endeavour to provide a complete description of an individual’s life, to various types of fragmentary or mosaic writing that, though entrenched in literary texts, are founded on one’s own experiences, in the form of fragments of memory, anecdotes, diary entries, letters, essays, etc. – has shifted its thematic focus to the sphere of the intimate, depicting both everyday life human existences and its extremes.
Why has autobiographical writing flourished precisely in an era of virtuality, information overload, superficial consumerism, false news and prophets, and, yes, the selfie? Is it harder to create a literary illusion today and to empathize with it? Is autobiographicality a symptom of the conditions in which a modern writer works? Perhaps a sign of laziness, ego? Does fiction today demand too much effort in terms of both creativity and reception? Have today’s readers and writers been overtaken by the non-literary sphere, with its multitude of stories from marketing campaigns, electoral campaigns, records of everybody (“influencers”) on social networks, in reality shows, and thus lost the battle for the realm of the fictive? In the midst of a carnivalesque society with endless “success stories,” is it not precisely autobiographical literature that is showing itself to be a literary haven of authenticity, in which the society, at least on the level of the individual, wishes to take off its mask and make us human again?
Is autobiographical writing in our 21st century – which is symbolized by the frenzied consumer flooded by information, the superficiality of perception and the lack of reflection, and which therefore increasingly manifests itself as a century of forgetfulness – primarily an authorial attempt to remember, capture memory, its (re)construction, to search for oneself, for one’s own identity? Is it possible to for autobiography to be more credible than a fictional story? Is self-embellishment and factual selectivity inherent to the autobiographical? What are the possible approaches to autobiographical writing? When does autobiography assume literary value? And last but not least: are autobiography and fiction (in)compatible categories? Is fictionalized autobiography possible? Is not all autobiography a fiction, an attempt to describe people and events that reflects the author’s stance towards what they are telling? Does the work relinquish its truth and authenticity if – for legal or ethical reasons – we change the actual names of people, places, and other specific references? What is literary authenticity and reality today?
This year’s Vilenica aims to open a discussion on autobiographical writing, its manifestations, the challenges of its literariness, and the relation to reality, the ethical potential for today’s times. Is it just one of the transient symptoms of modern narcissism, exhibitionism and voyeurism, or the most relevant form of literature with an important modern mission? What future of this form of literature.