The Kunstlertelenovela, or Autofiction in the Streaming Age

One sign of the persistence of the Program Era into the new millennium is the increasing prominence of creative writers, both as authors and subjects, on streaming television, indicating a socioeconomic and semiotic synergy between MFA programs and streaming content, both of which continue to proliferate despite the precarity of the career opportunities they provide. One of the first prominent instances of this synergy was Lena Dunham’s breakthrough series Girls, which was both by and about a young creative writer unstably suspended between MFA and NYC, striving for success and stature in a gig economy that at best provides only tenuous opportunities and temporary successes.

As I’ve discussed elsewhere (, Girls reflects, and reflects upon, the rise of creative nonfiction as a subdiscipline, and autofiction as a subgenre, of the Program Era, and affirms the apotheosis of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as locus classicus of the affective anxieties and aesthetic protocols of creative writing as a career choice. Less obvious as a site of such reflection is Jane the Virgin, an American remake of the Venezuelan telenovela about a 23-year-old virgin (she’s 17 in the Venezuelan original) who is accidentally artificially inseminated with the sperm of a playboy hotelier (by his lesbian sister doctor) on whom she had a crush in high school. When I began watching this show, on the insistence of my wife, I had no idea it would have anything to do with creative writing, but it does.  

But before we even got to that subplot, I had to contend with a sneaking suspicion that the premise of the show was covertly, or even not so covertly, pro-life. After being deeply moved by her deeply Catholic abuela’s conviction that a girl must maintain her virginity until marriage, Jane Villanueva (played by the thirty-eight-year-old Chicago-born Gina Alexis Rodriguez) has fallen in love with a man she hopes to marry when she is accidentally inseminated. The entire series then turns on her decision not to have an abortion, even though that would seem to be the most sensible thing for her to do, given that she’s planning to marry and lose her virginity to her true love, a detective in the Miami Police Department (played by Canadian actor Brett Jordan Dier). But Jane refuses to have an abortion, throwing the story into motion as her fiancée and the father of her baby, both breathtakingly handsome, vie for her love. Everything that happens afterward—and a lot of things happen afterwards; in true telenovela fashion each episode compresses a lifetime of dilemmas and decisions into fifty minutes—stems from her initial choice. And many of the many plots and subplots turn on each character’s responsibility for the preternaturally cute (but temperamentally tantrum-prone) child, Mateo, who is born in the final episode of the first season and grows up over the course of the rest of the series. If Jane had an abortion none of this would have happened, not so subtly suggesting a parallel between the impetus of the show and the birth of the child, and also strongly implying an underlying moral message that the obligation to care for the child bonds the characters and brings out the best in everyone.

What kept me watching was the revelation in the first episode that Jane wants to be a creative writer!  At the center of this soap operatic narrative—which proliferates the standard plot permutations of mistaken identities, mysterious criminal conspiracies, secret twins, returns from the dead, and serial breakups and reconciliations—sits a kunstlerroman about a young woman, a Latina raised on telenovelas, who wants to get an MFA in creative writing while raising a baby as a (sometimes) single mother. This Program Era plot provides an overlay of metacommentary to the entire series, as Jane struggles to write and publish a romance novel based on her life which is, of course, also the subject of the show we’re watching. On the one hand, this means that the show includes multiple scenes and subplots mapping out the contemporary literary field, including editors and authors, MFA programs and writers’ retreats, readings and reviews, all centered on the literary ambitions of our protagonist. On the other hand, it means that the show itself is “workshopped” in real time, insofar as components of the storyline, such as plot twists or character motivations, serve as loci of creative decision-making and revision. 

Indeed, I have concluded that Jane the Virgin IS a workshop, for writing and for life, and for life-writing. The romance genre from which it springs has always been about vicariously test-driving relationship skills, especially in the days when selecting a mate was a matter of marriage for life. In the contemporary era of serial monogamy these skills remain crucial, and the endless plot permutations of Jane the Virgin can essentially be understood as speculative exercises in the challenges and opportunities presented by emotional and sexual attachments. Since Jane is also a romance writer, the show doubles as a writing workshop, as she works to attain the skill necessary to render these challenges in her writing, educating her readers in turn. By bringing these challenges together the show becomes, in essence, a workshop in contemporary autofiction; it teaches us how to navigate life by writing about it, and vice versa. 

Author: lglass

Loren Glass is Professor and Chair of English at the University of Iowa, specializing in 20th and 21st century literatures and cultures of the United States, with an emphasis on book history and literary institutions. He is the author of Counterculture Colophon: Grove Press, the Evergreen Review, and the Incorporation of the Avant-Garde, (Stanford 2013), republished in paperback by Seven Stories Press under the title Rebel Publisher: Grove Press and the Revolution of the Word, and the editor of After the Program Era: The Past, Present, and Future of Creative Writing in the University (Iowa 2016). He is currently working on a literary history of Iowa City. He is a member of the Post45 collective and co-edits their book series.