Guest post by Virginia Newhall Rademacher
Biofiction is literature that uses the names of real-life individuals as its protagonists, and then opens those life stories to invention. While deriving from real sources, biofictions thus liberate fiction from interacting only with invented worlds. Instead, these works invite us to experiment with our biographical lives and to use fiction to respond to and shape real world concerns. My book, Derivative Lives, points to the prolific market of Spanish biofiction, in Spain and beyond, that openly and intentionally play in the speculative space between the real and the fictional.
While biofictions are not new, they have become increasingly popular with writers and readers in the past three decades or so. Biofictional approaches have gained added relevance and resonance because they constitute thresholds between the situated realities of biographical subjects and the imaginative potential of fictional creation – exactly the reality we are experiencing. How do we know who to believe, what to trust, what is true?
We are living in a world that is increasingly more circumstantial, speculative, and interactively game-like. Accelerating in the past few decades, the speed, profusion, and anonymity of networks of information and images have vastly multiplied the capacity to produce derivative identities across multiple platforms while making it harder to authenticate the truth-claims offered. The expansive pull of biofiction is both an outgrowth of this dispersive reality and a mode for navigating this context, modeling alternatives for how we manage and rethink its possibilities and pitfalls.
Because biofictions employ invention in reimagining biographical lives, they might be misunderstood as undermining the importance of facts, or even fostering the legitimacy of neologisms such as post-truth, truthiness or alternative facts. Yet, it is exactly the opposite. By examining critically the connection to factual realities and the distinct, but equally significant responsibility to how we use fiction, biofictions offer antidotes to post-truth contagions, asking us to consider what kinds of truths we hope to achieve.
As the circumstantial model in my book explores, we have often prioritized the accumulation of data at the expense of discernment, analysis, and judgment of what those clues might tell us about our lives. Meaningful truths cannot be simply about what we know but what we fail to understand, what writer Javier Cercas calls “moral truths,” the “shaping of paradox.” Writers of biofiction often emphasize how we can navigate a world of too much information and too little knowledge. Rather, these authors strive to engage with uneven and uncomfortable truths that might otherwise be reduced to facile fictions, opening up the moment, as Colum McCann observes, to “see what we don’t want or refuse to see.”
Exploring what might happen or could have happened differently is at the heart of the next provisional truth biofiction explores. Speculative truths consciously revise biographical lives and open them to the risk of conjecture. Such alterations are a way of opening these life narratives to unexpected possibilities, using imagined biographical futures and derivative lives as a way to both critique and unsettle the present.
Biofictional experimentation and adaptation have also been shaped profoundly by the immersive and interactive ease with which we can play into and revise one another’s biographical narratives. The playful biofictions of some writers can be critical, experiential, and experimental, challenging norms and conceptions of mastery and power and exposing decisions of choice and control regarding the fictions we create.
There are ethical implications not only for how we assess the value of biographical truth, but also for how we approach the uses of fiction to reinvent real lives. The truthful contract with the reader matters. There is a profound distinction between using literary fiction openly to speculatively re-imagine reality as opposed to deriving convenient fictions and presenting them as fact.
The aims of fiction matter. There is a difference between post-truth that tries to manipulate biographical fact with the aims of distorting and imposing a particular view of reality, and fiction that opens biographical lives to creative inquiry in the hopes of discovering new truths.
And there is a stark difference between the transactional use of another’s story for self-interested gain and the effort to envision another’s unknowable subjectivity and worldview in order to expand the possibilities for empathy and human connection beyond our individual experiences
With biofiction, life becomes literature and literature reveals the fragility, flexibility and flux of our biographical lives. Alongside the risks of imaginatively going beyond the contained certainties of what we think we know, we venture into the territory of unexpected possibility.
Virginia Newhall Rademacher is Professor of Hispanic Literature and Cultural Studies at Babson College, USA. She has published widely on genre, identity, and new narrative formats, including the contemporary surge in biofiction. Among others, her publications have appeared in a/b:Auto/Biography Studies, American Book Review, Persona Studies, Economistas, Hispanic Issues, Journal of Spanish Cultural Studies, Ciberletras, and Monographic Review.