The Genre of Autobiography: Definition and Characteristics
Basics of Autobiography
Derived from three Greek words meaning “self,” “life,” and “write,” autobiography is a style of writing that has been around nearly as long as history has been recorded. Yet autobiography was not classified as a genre within itself until the late eighteenth century. Robert Southey coined the term in 1809 to describe the work of a Portuguese poet (Anderson 1, 7; Berryman 71). In his book, Inside Out, E. Stuart Bates offers a functional definition of autobiography as “a narrative of the past of a person by the person concerned” (Bates 2).
That definition, however, is too broad for some literary critics. Many, such as Lejeune, a scholar on autobiography, wish to define the genre more narrowly. Linda Anderson cites Lejeune’s definition of autobiography as “[a] retrospective prose narrative produced by a real person concerning his own existence, focusing on his individual life, in particular on the development of his personality” (Anderson 2). He also thinks that the work must implicitly state itself to be an autobiography to be included within the genre (Anderson 3).
Other scholars, Bates, for example, do not think that there are any limitations or minimums on how much of a life must be revealed for it to be classified as autobiography. Many factual accounts, though not intended to be an autobiography per se, can be categorized as such because they contain “a self-revealed personality, after thorough reconsideration” (Bates 5). Cataloging autobiographies are further complicated because there are some that are translations and some that are edited. Maupassant even wrote an autobiography of his future (Bates 2-6).
Despite disagreements concerning how inclusive the category of autobiography should be, there are characteristics that are common to the majority of autobiographical works (Berryman 71). These features are the grammatical perspective of the work, the identity of the self, and self-reflection and introspection.
Most autobiographies are written from the first person singular perspective. This is fitting because autobiography is usually a story one tells about oneself. It would not naturally follow then that the writer would recount his or her past from a second or third person perspective. Jean Quigley confirms this point in her book The Grammar of Autobiography by saying that “As soon as we are asked about ourselves, to tell our autobiography, we start to tell stories. We tell what happened, what we said, what we did” (Quigley 144).
The author, the narrator, and the protagonist must share a common identity for the work to be considered an autobiography (Anderson 3). This common identity could be similar, but is not identical. The self that the author constructs becomes a character within the story that may not be a completely factual representation of the author’s actual past self (Anderson 3; Porter and Wolf 4-5; Quigley 106-7).
Human mirror skit that is a good illustration of perspective
Versions of the Truth
In their book The Voice Within, Roger Porter and H.R. Wolf state that “Truth is a highly subjective matter, and no autobiographer can represent exactly ‘what happened back then,’ any more than a historian can definitively describe the real truth of the past” (Porter and Wolf 5). This is due in part to the fact that words are not adequate to fully express memories and emotions.
Because the author cannot describe events objectively, even the most accurate autobiographies have fictional elements (Bates 7-10). Bates thinks that “There is, in fact, no dividing line between autobiography and fiction” (Bates 9). The blurring of fiction and truth characteristic of autobiography has even led to the creation of a subdivision within the genre of autobiography that deals with fictionalized self-accounts (“Serge Doubrovsky” 70).
Serge Doubrovsky was a French author who wrote principally about the Holocaust. His books are loosely based on his own life but are written in a fictional manner. For this style of writing that blends characteristics of both fiction and autobiography, Doubrovsky coined the literary term “autofiction” (Hughes 566-70; “Serge Doubrovsky” 70). In his article, Alex Hughes maintains that “autofiction may be understood as a narrative modality that inhabits the referential space likewise colonized by autobiography proper, but at the same time offers a patently enriched and treated, hence fictionalized, and metamorphotic, version of the life-story of the autofictionneur” (Hughes 569).
The term autofiction first appeared on the cover of Doubrovsky’s novel, Fils. He resists classifying his works as autobiographical. Instead he says:
Autobiographie? Non, c'est un privilège réservé aux importants de ce monde, au soir de leur vie, et dans un beau style. Fiction, d'événements et de faits strictement réels; si l'on veut, autofiction, d'avoir confié le langage d'une aventure à l'aventure du langage, hors sagesse et hors syntaxe du roman, traditionnel ou nouveau. (“Serge Doubrovsky” 72)
The language and style he uses is different from traditional autobiographies. Doubrovsky’s novels follow more than one narrative strand. He discards logical and chronological sequencing of his works in favor of a more poetic style (Hughes 566-70; “Serge Doubrovsky” 70-2). The Dictionary of Literary Biography states that Doubrovsky makes use of “alliteration, assonance, homonyms, paronyms, antonyms, and anagrams” (“Serge Doubrovsky” 74).
The difference between traditional autobiography and the genre of autofiction is that autobiographers are attempting to depict their real life while writers of autofiction are only basing their work upon real experiences. Writers of autofiction are not expected to be as historically accurate as possible as autobiographers are. According to Hughes, authors of autofiction are saying “ 'c'est moi et ce n'est pas moi' “ (Hughes 570). This sums up autofiction. Autofiction draws from the life of the writer with the addition of fictional elements to make the work more than just a life story.
Self-Evaluation and Introspection
Though the intent of the majority of autobiographers is authenticity, they, unlike biographers, are not expected to reveal all about their subject. Autobiographers are free to shape their life story in whatever manner they choose. They are at liberty to select what they want to include or omit. They can simplify or amplify an event. Or they can leave out the skeletons in the closet if they desire (Bates 3; Porter and Wolf 5). As Bates puts it, “he [the autobiographer] will often be enlarging on special aspects of his life, such as the influences that moulded him…or the services that he rendered to what he most cared about;…a vindication for this world;…he may…turn his book into…a laundry for the dirty linen of his dirty soul” (Bates 3). The way he or she organizes and arranges the events of the story shows what the author considers important.
The author depicts truths about himself through his experiences and the way he or she describes them. The way in which the writer illustrates past events says much about “who he thinks he is” (Porter and Wolf 5).
Because autobiography is, as Anderson puts it, a public exposure of the private self,” self-accounting and self-reflection are integral parts of the autobiography (Anderson 7). The author wants to justify his or her past actions to the reader. Quigley says that a “related but not identical narrator and protagonist” are integral to the process of self-justification (Quigley 107). The author establishes relationships to him or herself in order to show causality. For example, because the narrator and the protagonist are not identical, the narrator has “the ability to treat the self as other…creat[ing] the occasion for self-regard and editing…[because of] the distance between self-now and self-then” (Quigley 107). There is also a relationship between the reader and the author. By judging past actions as right or wrong, the narrator establishes to the reader that they share common norms. The narrator speaking in the autobiography “is always moral, even if the protagonist of the narrative is not” (Quigley 107). This relating is then evaluated socially according to whether actions are appropriate or inappropriate or surprising or normal (Quigley 64, 106-7, 155).
Other interactions that the narrator establishes are relationships with other characters in the story. This allows the speaker to present the self as either “an experiencer or recipient of actions, where the self is seen as an objective static entity” (Quigley 152). The speaker may narrate an event in such a way that the self does not have to accept the responsibility for the outcome. It can be described as happening to the protagonist because of the actions of others (Quigley 106-7, 52).
Autobiography is a form of introspection. When authors write about their past, it is not free from emotions. Revealing character’s intentions, thoughts, and emotions is another way that the narrator evaluates why events occurred as they did. By explaining what happened in the past, the author is able to express to the reader how the self evolved. The self-now is the person he or she is because of the events of the past. William Maxwell said:
What we refer to confidently as memory-meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and therefore rescued from oblivion-is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. (Quigley 193).
Autobiography is a popular genre. Writers of memoirs and life stories never lack an audience. Anderson says that “autobiography [is] a form of witnessing which matters to others” (Anderson 126). People are interested in the actual lives of others and want to know about others’ pasts and feelings and desires (Anderson 5-7; Quigley 2-15). A quote from Olney in Anderson’s book reveals the appeal of autobiography. Olney says “the explanation for the special appeal of autobiography is a fascination with the self and its profound, its endless mysteries” (Anderson 5). Autobiography is a way to organize the story of a life and reflect on the past in order to better understand the present.
Anderson, Linda R. Autobiography: New Critical Idiom. New York: Routledge, 2001.
Bates, E. Stuart. Inside Out: An Introduction to Autobiography. New York: Sheridan House, 1937.
Berryman, Charles. "Critical Mirrors: Theories of Autobiography." Mosaic (Winnipeg) 32.1 (1999): 71.
Hughes, Alex. “Recycling and Repetition in Recent French ‘Autoficion”: Marc Weitzmann’s Doubrovskian Borrowings.” The Modern Language Review 97.3 (2002): 566-76.
Porter, Roger J., and H.R. Wolf. The Voice Within: Reading and Writing Autobiography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1973.
Quigley, Jean. The Grammar of Autobiography: A Developmental Account. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc., 2000.
“Serge Doubrovsky.” Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 299: Holocaust Novelists. Ed. Efraim Sicher. Ben-Gurion University of the Negev: Gale, 2004. 70-6.