This decade we’ve become obsessed with reading – and writing – about ourselves | Rebecca Watson

It’s no longer just celebrities whose lives fascinate us. The experience of the non-famous matters more than ever before

When you enter a bookshop, you may be confronted by the glossy faces of David Cameron, Michelle Obama and Elton John, but celebrities no longer rule the memoir section. They have been joined by the non-famous telling tales of wild swimming, of discovering nature, of dying and nearly dying. And to this can be added the genres of creative non-fiction, autofiction, and personal essays – terms that were once barely used. Throughout the 2010s, readers have been drawn more than ever to the ordinary voice, and writers have increasingly turned to their own lives for material.

Why has this happened? This decade the world has been online as never before: 48% of the global population now uses the internet (in 2005, it was 16%). We have grown accustomed to hearing unknown voices – voices that aren’t speaking because they have been asked to, but because they have chosen to. There has been a levelling: social media has allowed anyone to become a practising writer. In the 2010s, we became obsessed with writing about ourselves.

Internet ubiquity has bred creativity. It has encouraged us to perform: to use our life material for effect. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of blog posts and Reddit threads has aligned with the rise of autofiction – where the author self-consciously feeds details from their life into the construct of a novel.

In 2012, came Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be?, containing fictionalised versions of herself and her friends, including the artist Margaux Williamson. Ben Lerner’s Leaving the Atocha Station (2011), the first in his autofictional trilogy, followed an unreliable narrator, Adam Gordon, who tests the boundaries of truth and performance – at one point, he lies about his mother being dead, then fears that he will have somehow caused her demise by doing so. This inquisitive line-crossing, saying things to see what happens, encapsulates the 2010s all on its own. In this decade the spread of misinformation has risen to new heights, with rumours being passed on through retweets, and the president of the United States branding any facts that don’t suit him “fake news”.

Adam Kay.
‘Adam Kay’s tale about the realities of being a junior doctor in This is Going to Hurt has sold omore than 1m copies.’ Photograph: Martinovic and Noble Photo Agency

Elif Batuman’s autobiographical novel The Idiot (2017) repurposed material she had explored in her 2010 memoir The Possessed to create a completely different book. Karl Ove Knausgård’s many-volumed, decade-spanning My Struggle details how much milk he likes on his cereal. Rachel Cusk, Tao Lin, Édouard Louis, Tom Malmquist, Maggie Nelson, recent translations of Annie Ernaux – the list goes on. I don’t even know how to categorise Meena Kandasamy’s latest, Exquisite Cadavers (2019), which reserves a space in the margin where she processes the main text as it progresses. Autofiction existed before 2010, but this decade, it has proliferated.

In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the word of the year. In 2017, Collins Dictionary chose “fake news” (in 2013, it was “selfie”). In a time of distrust, personal testimony feels more reliable than statements from once-respected institutions. First-person exposés and undercover accounts have been bestsellers: from James Bloodworth’s exposure of low-wage Britain in Hired (2018), Adam Kay’s tale about the realities of being a junior doctor in This is Going to Hurt (2017), which has sold more than 1m copies, to an anonymous assessment of the justice system by the Secret Barrister (Stories of the Law and How It’s Broken, 2018). Tales from prison officers, teachers, carers have all followed.

The end of this decade also brought the rise of unknown voices through the #MeToo movement, where personal testimonies unveiled a landscape of abuse. Books followed, including Know My Name (2019) by Chanel Miller, about her experience of sexual assault and extremely public court case. Not That Bad (2018), an anthology about rape and sexual assault edited by Roxane Gay, set voices known and unknown side by side: what they had to say, not who they were, mattered. People in positions of power have failed to act, so those who don’t have a platform have had to build their own instead.

It could be easy to label the 2010s as the decade of cultural narcissism, but that is too simplistic. On a recent trip to the UK, Lerner spoke about his choice to write autofiction not out of passion for the genre, but out of an aversion to the “great American novel”, where the highest goal is to achieve a state of universality through a supposedly omniscient voice that believes it encompasses all experience. Lerner’s form is born of kindness. It admits that he, as a white man, can only write what he knows, that he cannot presume to know what he has not lived. Lerner’s autofiction still has a universality, but it has achieved that from a specific standpoint – himself – which has broadened over the decade: in the last of his trilogy, The Topeka School (2019), he widens the scope to his parents’ perspectives, too.

This decade has not just been about finding our own voices, but about letting more voices in. Lerner’s comment is a nod to our diversifying publishing landscape – which, albeit slowly, is progressing. It was fitting for the decade to end with Bernardine Evaristo being recognised with the Booker prize. But it is telling that – in an age in which there are so many voices clamouring for our attention, and where we are still learning which ones to prioritise – she had to share it.

• Rebecca Watson’s first novel, little scratch, will be published by Faber & Faber in July 2020

Contributor

Rebecca Watson

The GuardianTramp

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