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Real or Fake? Autofiction and The Hills

By Lucy Sweeney Byrne.

I’ve been asked my thoughts on autofiction quite a lot recently. I think there’s an assumption that I’ll have strong feelings on the genre as a genre, and that, based on the style and content of my book, I’ll probably defend it. Maybe even defend it with feeling. But when asked, I never really know what to say, I suppose because I never feel it would be polite to say that I don’t believe in the existence of autofiction. That I don’t think of it as a valid term. I think saying that could even seem like I’m, circuitously, trying to call my interlocutor a knob. But I wouldn’t be doing that, even if they were a knob, because why bother? Rather, if I were to say, “sorry, but I don’t think autofiction is a thing, let’s not discuss it — next question?” I’d simply be avoiding having to express my firmly held doubt that there’s any real, solid difference between fact and fiction in art, or in conversation, or, well, in our comprehension of reality. There are simply gradations, a scale, on which any communicated or comprehended happening or event or story, happens to sit (in my world, everything’s on a scale).

At the ‘total fiction’ end of this particular scale is, I don’t know, The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, or God (just kidding! Sort of). And at the other, well, people have different other ends, since people have many opposing beliefs that, to them, are undeniably ‘fact’. But I guess, at the very least, at the other end of the scale we’re supposed to have empirical reality; things like glass and combustible engines and the composition of the air (along with many other things I don’t understand or have never actually seen or experienced for sure, but am told are there, definitely). For me, the only thing that’s unquestionably there is death, and even that is well-known to be a little fuzzy when it comes to the details.

In between these two ends lies everything else, sort of swishing around murkily. Which means that to blend fact and fiction is, in my mind, how all stories are told, whether consciously or not, because it’s nigh on impossible to include in any telling of anything a series of absolute facts. Opinions are a form of fiction, as are memories, as are histories, perspectives. One’s choice of language is a loaded decision, implying inherited or adopted belief systems and cultures, as well as the inherent desire to frame a reader’s perception (that old ‘freedom fighter’ versus ‘terrorist’ nugget). This seems, to me, like such an obvious point, that it’s stupid to make it.

And yet, the question comes up. “What do you think of all the autofiction being written now?” “Would you class yourself as an autofictional writer?” People debate it. People not only debate it, its meaning and status as a genre, but actually get angry about it; angry about the genre of autofiction, for being so fucking wishy washy, so indecisive, and not choosing precisely which camp it wants to be in. People associate its qualities with a stereotypically feminine set of characteristics (see last sentence), and so the debate over a genre I personally don’t see as actually in existence even becomes political (fact or fiction, true or false, make up your mind, woman!). These frustrated debaters say it’s simple, obvious, that one must choose what a thing is, and that to do anything else is misleading and dishonest. They’re like the people who believe totally in the existence of Heaven, or chemtrails, or the benefits of wheatgrass. It’s strange to me, probably because I don’t completely believe in anything, and take this to mean that I’m poetic and, as a result, benignly magnanimous, just as Keats and Buddha wanted me to be.

To me, terms like fact, fiction, and autofiction, are prime examples of language gone too far, of over-specification, or, more accurately, of thought-wankery. It’s all just so irrelevant, so narrow, so needless, so lazily conservative, and has nothing to do with the making or receiving of great art, which, I think, is what we’re all supposed to be striving for.

Presumably, there are some amazing, very trendy, very intellectual philosophical essays circulating in the ether right now on autofiction, taking in fake truth and referencing Simulcra and Simulations (my personal favourite quote is “Illusion is no longer possible because the real is no longer possible” — lovely stuff). Honestly though, when people ask me for an opinion on autofiction, or even if I glance the term in passing, my mind starts humming the theme tune to The Hills — you know, that MTV show from the noughties? Yes, the show is first and foremost a stunning example of how capitalist modernity puts its victims through a meat-grinder of humiliation and pain and destruction, and tells them it’s a wonderful opportunity, nay, exactly what they ought to be striving for. But also, it’s a total kick in the teeth to anyone who thinks this genre-bending stuff happening in writing is in any way new or interesting, or exclusive to the realm of the frenzied literati. They’d partaken in the merging of fact and fiction on the show way before Deborah Treisman started chatting about the idea in podcasts, or events started to be named oh so tongue-in-cheekily “Autofiction: True or False?” at literary festivals.

The first of its kind, the premise of The Hills was simple and yet, in strange ways — ways whose implications perhaps still haven’t been fully understood — extremely, ontologically complex. The idea was this; film a bunch of teenagers / young adults in Los Angeles, all as rich and beautiful as they are shallow and stupid, and watch their romantic lives unfold. Reality TV 101. But the slight difference with The Hills was that, for the first time (to my knowledge), the show was openly semi-scripted. The people on The Hills seem to have started out as pretty ‘real,’ actually living as they wanted to, actually dating who they liked and actually falling out with people they’d actually been friends with. In fact, at first, the plot didn’t even matter. They could’ve been — and were — doing essentially nothing. It was all about the novelty of seeing how the other half lived, the hot blondes, the muscled dudes; those whom the sad, angry little people watching at home might call the Chads and Stacys of the world (I’m including my younger self in that embittered audience). We watched, and were fascinated by them, and wanted to be them, and hated their guts, and relished all the many times they revealed their breathtaking idiocy.

It was great shit TV, and the show became a huge hit. Amongst the girls of my generation in Ireland, it was ubiquitous, the perfect after-school fodder for us aspirational, fake-tanned mudbloods, stuck on the couch idly texting some pimply loser, scratching our hairy legs under our school uniform skirts (the theme song, ‘Unwritten’ by Natasha Beddingfield, was even my year’s suitably deluded graduation song). Suddenly, what had probably looked to the producers like a one-shot pony was a smash, and they were forced to churn out series after series. Problem was, the magic sheen of seeing the white, marbled mansions and flirty beach parties had long-since worn off for the audience, and the show was now following lives that became increasingly dull, as the cast grew older and (other than the human car crash, Spencer Pratt), less prone to entertaining emotional outbursts. And so, presumably, that’s when the scripting began in earnest. New characters were introduced to the mix, staged romances occurred, falsified rivalries flared.

There was some vague awareness that all of the this wasn’t totally true, that it wasn’t happening exactly as it was presented — photos of arch nemeses would be posted online, arm in arm on a red carpet somewhere, and we’d be reminded, gently, that these were now, sort of, actors, playing the roles of themselves, with their own names and traits, but altered, to fit the show. Naturally, though, we didn’t believe it. We thought, at most, that the show was scripted to better present the actual happenings of their lives. The core reality of the events — him loving her, him sleeping with that other girl with the awful fake boobs, her running away to the beach house to deal with her heartbreak, etc. — was definitely true. Because it was a reality TV show! It was advertised as reality TV! And ads don’t lie. The characters even gave interviews in trashy ladies’ magazines that confirmed the plot lines, and nobody, nobody, could doubt the fidelity to truth upheld by the trashy magazines.

Of course, throughout the show, some of the plot developments were really happening. That was the beauty of it — the mixture of reality and scripting. It made you believe everything, or, at least, made you really invest. The enormous fall out at the centre of the show between Lauren and Heidi (side note: I can’t fucking believe I remember their names, but can never quite remember which is Kierkegaard and which is Kant), because of Heidi’s relationship with her emotionally abusive boyfriend, Spencer, seems to have really happened (side note: how was that relationship allowed to play out on TV? He was sociopathic, a bully, constantly belittling and demeaning and gaslighting her, and it was treated as entertainment — entertainment aimed at young, impressionable females. Not great, MTV. And now they’re married with a child!).

Most notably, the scene in which Heidi returns to her family home in Colorado to reveal her extensive plastic surgery to her Mom, was a desperately ‘real’ moment. It was, in fact, one of the most frighteningly real scenes ever to happen on reality TV, or maybe any kind of TV, and is worth watching on Youtube, as a quick reminder of how fucking ugly and painful and warped these shows are in the first place; how they’re like a sickness, infecting both us, watching them, as well as the poor souls sacrificed to be their stars.

The scene, which I think it’s worth looking at in detail, plays out like this:

Heidi and her Mom sit on a green, leather sofa, while another cast member, Spencer’s sister (so, that’s Heidi’s abusive boyfriend’s sister), looks on, her expression at times dopey, politely intrigued, or slightly distressed. Heidi’s Mom is refreshingly natural looking; a striking, appropriately aged face, unstyled brown hair, little make-up, casual clothes. Heidi, who sits stiffly, controlling the angles of her body for the cameras (as the regular cast all have trained themselves to do, stomach in tits out), looks like one of the alien women from Mars Attacks.

As she speaks, with that up-tilted intonation of millennial Americans, that makes every spoken comma sound like a question mark, she points towards herself exactly how you’d imagine her surgeon did, the gestures reminiscent of a nineteen-fifties saleswoman, using not a single finger but all the manicured fingers, in a tight fan.

Mom: So what all did you have done?

Heidi: I got um, I got a slight eyebrow lift, and that’s why I had these staples in my head —

Mom: Is that permanent?

Heidi: Yeah, it’s permanent —

Mom: It’s not, they’re not gonna, come down a little?

Heidi: (slight pause) No.

The Mom looks down, away from her daughter’s face.

Heidi, glancing at Spencer’s sister before continuing: I had my nose redone … I had my own fat reinjected into my cheeks … I had my ears pinned back… I had injections in my lips … I had my chin shaved down (at this point, the camera cuts to Spencer’s sister, who is now holding her face with both hands and shaking her head as she leans forward on her knees, a bit like Munch’s ‘The Scream’) … I had my breasts redone, and my back shaped (Heidi gesticulates the curve of a back to her mother) … and then I had a little bit of inner and outer lipo done…

There’s a pause. The Mom sighs out through her nose, mouth tight together, before speaking, her tone clear but not unkind.

Mom: You risked your life to do the things that you did.

Heidi: Mom, there’s brain surgery every day, there’s, huge surgeries, that are every day —

Mom: You had elective surgery that was completely unnecessary, and —

Heidi: To you it was unnecessary —

Mom: I just feel like, that, when you left home, you had more confidence and more self-esteem than any person I’d ever met in my life.

Heidi: Well you know growing up I used to put water balloons in my bra, and always wanted big boobs, and, haha, you know, it’s not anything new —

Heidi delivers this last like she’s said it before, which she no doubt has, many times, straight to camera, and in conversation with Spencer while on camera, and to surgeons, most likely also while on camera — it comes across as a ‘bit’ she does, a practiced justification.

Mom: You said you want bigger boobs than you have now?

Here she’s alluding, I guess, to some other conversation or a text, probably about the filming of this scene, how it would go, etc.

Heidi: I, I actually wanted bigger ones but they couldn’t fit in.

Heidi delivers this, again, like it’s a little funny, or quirky — it sounds like something Spencer might laugh at, rather than find sad and depressing, as her mother and his sister do here.

Mom, shaking her head: It sounds to me like you wanna look like Barbie.

Heidi, smiling: I do wanna look like Barbie!

Mom, leaning towards her daughter, hand beating out each word in pained frustration: Why would you wanna look like Barbie? To everybody else that saw you, you were Heidi, nobody in the world could’ve looked like Heidi Montag.

Heidi, after a beat, not smiling now: …Are you telling me you don’t think I look good?

Mom, after a pause, glancing down: Maybe you should rephrase the question.

Heidi: No, do I look good?

Mom, after slight shake of her head, eyes sad, clearly trying to choose her words: I mean, how do I go and say that of course I thought that you were more beautiful before, I thought you were younger, I thought you were fresher looking, I thought you were healthier…

The camera cuts to Heidi’s face nodding, at the very beginnings of trying and failing not to cry. Then there’s what seems like a slightly clunky edit (only noticeable to aficionados of the scene like myself) before clipping back to the Mom’s speech.

Mom: …what’s done is done, so that’s a terrible thing for me to say (a murmured ‘I know’ from Heidi in the background) but yes, that’s how I feel, I felt that you were much more beautiful before, and I’m hoping that some of this will fade away and go away.

Heidi pauses, looking smaller now, hunched down, not sitting up straight anymore, as she usually remembers to do on camera. She’s looking up at her mother in genuine incomprehension (the sad thing about Heidi was how achingly nice and easily manipulated she was — like a little bunny rabbit, or a deer, although she was also, obviously, appallingly shallow), before giving a small, sad, beginning-to-cry smile and shaking her head and sighing. Then there’s another jump edit.

Heidi: You don’t have to support it, or think it looks good…

This is where Heidi’s voice breaks, and she’s really crying, although she’s totally unable to scrunch up her new face, so except for her voice, you’d barely know it — I’m not even sure actual tears can come out of her eyes.

Heidi: …but you have to realise all I’ve been through, and you have to realise, that I’ve been through so much pain, and coming here, and having you, attacking me, it’s just really hard.

The camera cuts to the Mom, who’s nodding and crying now too, as she twirls Heidi’s blonde, straightened hair in her fingers — what comes across as a pitiful attempt to reach out across this fucking awful gulf that we can suddenly see stretched out between them.

Heidi, continuing: …and I understand, that you don’t support it, I understand that you’re upset, you’re disappointed, but, Mom (a more declarative tone from Heidi, then a big sob, readying herself), this is what I chose (end scene music starts up), and there’s nothing that I can take back (music crescendos, emotional singer songwriter stuff, the usual).

The scene ends with shots of the Mom and Heidi’s tearful faces looking at one another on the couch, before Heidi turns her face away and down.

Scrolling down through the comments on the Youtube clip, the second down, posted by Michael Moutinho (who are the people who comment on Youtube clips? Whole other essay), says:

“It’s ironic that the only real scene from The Hills is about someone with a fake face.”

That may be true, Mike, but there’s more to it than that. This scene offers us something startlingly raw and true that occurs within a highly staged, ‘fictionalised’ situation, in spite of the manipulative editing, and the sappy music that comes in at the end. The Mom’s pain is real, Heidi’s pain is real — the physical results of her extensive, irreversible surgery, seen in the setting of her family home back in Colorado, are horrifyingly real.

The scene is noteworthy for being so out of tune with the rest of the show, which remains almost exclusively caught up within the confines of the world of those involved, thus normalising the attitudes and behaviour of each awful, lost person therein, simply by offering no alternative. It is a scene that breaks the fourth wall, within a format that tricked us into thinking there wasn’t one in the first place. This scene breaks this invisible fourth wall, and in doing so, makes us aware of ourselves in the action of viewing. It implicates us, somehow, for creating this monster daughter. Because, let’s face it, it’s our desire to watch her that’s made her what she is.

This is especially effective, because of the usual levels of scripting and unreality prevalent within the format of the show. It’s jarring because, usually, as much as we ‘believe’ in the reality of The Hills, we forget that these victims (wait, I mean, ‘stars of the show’), were ever actually normal people, with families, and lives, and histories of their own. The truth of the scene, set within a form so stylised and controlled, forces us to acknowledge that Heidi isn’t just some stupid bimbo, but a beloved daughter, who has become lost in the world of vapid, D-list, Californian reality TV, who is now being confronted on camera (again, for our entertainment), by a mother who is devastated to see her child so totally transformed. Much like Heidi, we too are unexpectedly confronted by a mother who is honest about what she sees, and eloquent in expressing what’s wrong with the picture (and although it would be impossible for her to express how entirely things have gone wrong, impossible to say that the very presence of the cameras in the room indicates the root of the problem, a problem we are only just being reminded of as we watch — the very existence of the scene itself illuminates all of these glaring issues for the viewer). All the Mom can manage to wrap words around is the surgery, which is enough. We can see her pain, see what she’s grasping at, and, through it, we see with sudden and unexpected clarity the warped and sickening world of The Hills as a whole. In other words, the realness of the scene, set within the falsified reality, forces the show to draw attention to its own form, and forces us, the viewers, to consider what it is we’re consuming. It is only by the action of blending these moments of truth with scripted fiction, and by not openly revealing which is which, that such an electrifying awareness can be created.

So yes, real moments could and did happen on The Hills, making it, as advertised, ‘reality TV’, i.e. ‘real’ i.e. ‘not made up’, and these scenes, however few and far between, reminded us of the existence of a fourth wall, by occasionally, often accidentally, breaking it. But The Hills did something way more interesting than that (which, to be fair, was fairly serendipitous — no casting agent could dream up people as mental and raw as Heidi and Spencer, willing to trail their guts across our TV screens). The Hills had the balls to shoot the now infamous final scene, in which they openly drew attention to the show’s own unreality, deliberately revealing the show’s fourth wall by, well, showing it to us.

The final scene of The Hills enraged fans. After a thick and sludgy tan-brown stream of series after series, full of ‘he loves hers’ and ‘oh my god how could shes’, and yet more crippling emotional cruelty towards Heidi by Spencer, we’re finally faced with Brody and Kristin, two especially boring characters, standing in the middle of a street in L.A., Hollywood sign in the background, drawling about how they’ll miss each other (I’d be more specific, but, weirdly, the scene seems to have been taken off the internet, so I’m working from memory, which has immortalised the concept of the scene, if not what they’re actually saying). Anyway, they smile sexily, hug maybe, say goodbye, and then, as an emotionally turbo-charged, pared-back version of ‘Unwritten’ (the beautiful irony, but did they really see it!?) starts to get louder, the camera pans back, to reveal that they are not, in fact, standing on a street at all, but on a set! *Cue the jaws of girls and gay boys dropping all around the globe*

There, visible, a rising backdrop, on which the street, the Hollywood sign, the whole thing, is printed, along with cameras, set workers, a director et al. They concluded the show by brazenly reminding us that there’d been a fourth wall the whole time, making abundantly clear that the show was most certainly not reality, but scripted, faked, staged, the whole kit and caboodle. In an interview in Entertainment Weekly, Brody Jenner (Brody, by the way, is a half-brother to the younger Jenner sister, Kitty and Katty or whatever-the-fuck, and thus step-brother, for a while, to the three older Kardashians) said of the ending:

“Well that’s one of the questions that was always asked in the show, ‘Is it real or is it fake?’ And we kinda left everybody with ‘Well you’ll never know what’s real and what’s fake.’”

I really can’t emphasise enough how much people hated this ending. It was like the teen reality equivalent of the final episode of Lost, or the G.O.T. debacle. The only Hills finale that can now be found online is the alternate ending, in which Brody says his goodbyes to Kristin before an odd (almost funereal) montage of clips of some of the main characters over the years, before we again see Brody, now entering a white apartment in which a white, blonde girl sits on a white couch with her back to us (this was before BAME casting was even remotely a thing). She turns, and it’s Lauren, the girl the show opened with, who used to be its central character and narrator. She’s a grown woman now, no longer a regular cast member, and so I think the idea was that we’d go, “wow, look, it’s Lauren! She’s back!” She asks Brody if he’s okay, to which he says yeah, he just had to say goodbye to a friend. Lauren tilts her head prettily, and concludes that it’s hard to say goodbye (it was wise insights such as these for which the show was so popular). Brody concurs, and then they stare meaningfully at each other for a while, before both breaking into wide (definitely real) smiles. Then the show’s over.

In spite of the almost offensive blandness of this conclusion, all of the many, many comments under the clip seem to agree that this would have been a way better ending. Which only confirms the fact that, often, people prefer comfortingly anodyne mediocrity to having their illusions shattered, when it comes to the tight strictures of reality versus fiction.

Or, maybe, this resistance to such a defiantly experimental ending to what had been, for years, a lifelessly conformist TV show, illustrates that the debate happening around autofiction is only happening at all because, for everyone, be it brainless teenagers, or those who claim to be intellectually curious lovers of art and the written word, it’s discomfiting to accept that things can be (in fact, almost always are) both true and false at once.

I started talking about The Hills, firstly, because, as I mentioned, the theme tune comes to mind when I’m asked about autofiction, which I recently was, yet again (“Staring at the blank page before you / Open up the dirty window / Let the sun illuminate…”), but also to demonstrate how it so casually and unapologetically did something the world of contemporary literature is struggling to get its head around, even now. In an age when the artists, the leading intellectuals, the people who are supposed to be at the forefront of avant-garde thought and experimentalism, whatever the hell that might be these days (sitting in a large room and holding eye-contact with people? Not using full stops? Taking drugs?), are clamouring about definitions between fiction, autofiction, and fact, The Hills managed to blur the lines entirely between fact and fiction, and to do so in a way that proved genuinely exciting, without having to have endless debates over what it actually was. It’s still classed as reality TV, but is, in practice, about as real as Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show (also set in L.A., in which people play themselves, following a very loose script to illustrate preconceived, fictional events, often drawn from the main character’s actual life) that, on the opposite side, is unproblematically categorised as fictional.

Because — and this is what it all comes down to — who honestly cares what any of it’s called, as long as it’s good?

One final, slightly off-the-point, thought: I want to say that there is an element of what is currently deemed to be ‘autofictional’ writing that I find astoundingly cowardly, even distasteful. And I wonder, sometimes, when I’m asked about the genre, if maybe it’s the fact that so much of autofiction is associated with this small offshoot, that makes it such a contentious and endless subject of discussion, which so many balk against.

The particular kind of writing I’m talking about occurs when, under the protective blanket of the term ‘autofiction’, people write about their own ‘bad things’ (such as, say, their past or present uglinesses or meannesses or shitty behaviours), without having to actually own up to them. When this is what’s meant by autofiction, it refers to what is, ultimately, a cheap trick to remove the culpable self from the expressed self. These writers can write direct events from their lives, however superficially altered, and offer them to a character — a literary avatar. This method is just so weak. And it happens because people writing in this way want to write honestly and bravely and truthfully, but also want, ultimately, to be liked, to not be shunned, or judged, or hated, which in the end makes it, in spite of supposedly lofty intentions, only the more despicable.

Maybe I’m being too harsh, but, increasingly, this writing bothers me, because it seems to be increasingly used as a vehicle to describe and disclose pretty nasty things, without any real, deep artistic justification. It feels like the writers are saying “the seedier I go, the more fascinatingly tortured and deeply philosophical I must be — although, of course, do remember, it’s not really me.” Essentially, these writers want to tell it, but to not go all in; to, at the end of the day, still be able to throw their hands up and say, “oh, well, you know, it isn’t me, who did or said or thought that, it’s the character!”

I know about this, and have given it a lot of thought, because I’ve done it in my own writing. Lots. And it’s possible to justify the method, by saying it’s a legal thing, or that it’s written that way because it’s an interpretation of events, or because you’ve changed how it all played out. But really, it’s an ego thing, a youth thing, and like many things dictated by ego and youth, slightly pathetic.

And so, if that’s what’s really meant by autofiction (which I still don’t deem to be a valid categorical term), the cloaking of the self within the safety of a just-about-pretend self, then that’s just a pussy way of saying a true thing without having to stand by it.

This particular form of writing seems to be especially suited to the Irish psyche, by which I mean the hungover-on-catholicism psyche, since, really, it’s the literary equivalent of confessing through a thin wall; saying the bad things aloud, but invisibly.

Maybe, if we were to follow that thread, this kind of semi-autobiographical writing is supposed to function as some sort of twisted redemption. Which then, following it along a bit further, creates a good old chicken-egger, since we’re led to ask the question: would the writer of that kind of coquettish, it’s-me-but-not-me ‘autofiction’, even have pursued the situations and interactions about which they write, so as to confess them in their writing, if they were not drawn to the writing of the confession in the first place? And if that’s the case, and they have purposefully entered or created scenarios in their life with the intention of being able to later write about them, is that even ‘reality’ as we understand it, in the first place, or is it a ‘pre-fictionalised’ experience? Or is that all just too goddamn naval-gazey for anyone to even want to consider?

Regardless, that particular underbelly of autofiction, if we’re going to be forced to use the term, doesn’t seem like an especially noble or worthy genre to me, and is definitely not worth getting all het up over, or even really discussing (so I’ll stop).

Lucy Sweeney Byrne‘s short stories and essays have appeared in literary magazines such as Banshee, The Stinging Fly, The Dublin Review, Litro and Grist, with further work forthcoming in Gorse. Her debut collection, Paris Syndrome, was published by Banshee Press in September 2019. In 2020, she was shortlisted for the Kate O’Brien Award and the John McGahern Book Prize. Lucy writes reviews as well as a weekly column on her favourite classic books for The Irish Times. She has twice received Arts Council bursaries. Lucy lives in Northumberland.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 5th, 2020.