Posted by: Blue Horizon Books | January 12, 2019

Autobiography or Memoir?

I’ve been asked by several writers what the difference is between autobiography and memoir, and there’s plenty of advice out there on the web to help you discern the difference.  Writer’s Digest notes that “Amazon.com puts them in the same category. But there’s a key difference that publishers use to define each—the timeline covered in the writing. An autobiography focuses on the chronology of the writer’s entire life while a memoir covers one specific aspect of the writer’s life.”

Ian Jack, writing for The Guardian, also notes that “The two words are often used interchangeably and the boundary between the two forms is fuzzy,” and that “The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be” and therefore, the writing better be good!

Rebecca Hussey, writing on BookRiot, makes some excellent distinctions between the two, but notes that both are first-person accounts of the writer’s life. However, she says that in autobiographies, the writer is usually someone famous or important, whereas a memoirist could be anybody. People read memoirs not because they want to found out about the famous or important person, but because “they are interested in a certain subject or story and are drawn to the writer’s style or voice.” Another big difference is that “autobiography places greater emphasis on facts and how the writer fits into the historical records, while memoir emphasizes personal experience and interiority.”

the double life of lilianeHaving read several books in this genre recently, I wanted to re-visit these definitions, as one of the books—The Double Life of Liliane, by Lily Tuck (Grove Atlantic, 2015) didn’t seem to fit into either category. As Kirkus Reviews puts it, in this book “A ton of factual information complements the fiction …”  It is a “family history in mosaic form. Metafiction that pleases and frustrates in equal measure.”

Indeed, as I plowed through the fascinating descriptions of all the illustrious people in Tuck’s family (imagined family?), as well as descriptions of her own very international life, I found myself frequently wondering if what I was reading was fact or fiction. And yet, it was a compelling story nonetheless, and I was especially taken by the last page in the narrative, when the author describes a class she took with the famous literary critic Paul de Man at Harvard, who told his students that writing autobiography requires “exchanging the writing ‘I’ for the written ‘I’ — and this implies that both persons are at least as different as they are the same.”  “In this way,” deMan said (or author Tuck attributes to him), “I consider autobiography as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative.”

However, another excellent book I read recently—Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance hillbilly elegy(HarperCollins, 2016) was unmistakably factual and from the heart, and most likely fits into the category of memoir because before this book, we had no idea who J.D. Vance was or why we would want to read his story. And yet, I’ve found myself encouraging everyone I know to read this book. If nothing else, it helps to explain (to me, at least), why a certain socio-economic class voted for our current president, and why many of those same people cannot seem to rise up out of the circumstances that keep them in poverty, social chaos, and even addiction.

Vance traces his life’s path, and his family’s history, from Kentucky’s Appalachia region to the manufacturing towns of Ohio where many former “hillbillies” migrated to find work and a better life. In reading Vance’s story, I was reminded of something I learned in a grad school literature class on “working class literacy”—not everyone believes in the American Dream.  Instead, in many working class communities, there are those who resent their friends, neighbors and family members who attempt to rise up and out of poverty and the stagnation of aspirations. And yet Vance manages to do just that, going on to college and then Yale Law School, with the help of many mentors, including his very colorfully portrayed grandparents.  Though Hillbilly Elegy leaves off just as Vance is achieving the American Dream, and has figured out that he doesn’t need to continue pursuing achievements, accomplishments, and accolades the rest of his life, subsequent news says that he has returned to Ohio to help with the jobs and drug crisis there.

Roxanne Gay’s book, Hunger (HarperCollins, 2017) is also clearly a memoir, even though hungershe had already become rather famous for her best-seller, Bad Feminist. Her book entitled Heavy, however, deals with only one main part of the author’s life—why she is so enormously overweight. She is in fact, as she puts herself, obese, and this is something that she is both embarrassed and defensive about. This book is evidently her effort to come to terms with her weight and the reasons for it. It is heart-rending to read the part of the story when she reveals that she was gang-raped by a group of boys as a young adolescent, one of them being a boy she considered to be her “boyfriend,” who set the whole thing up.  Her weight, at least initially, then became a wall she built to protect herself from anyone else looking at her in a sexual way.

While the writing itself was a bit too casual for me—sometimes I got the impression that she sat down and told herself that she would simply write at least a chapter a day, whether it was a paragraph long or many — at the same time, I also felt that she was almost working out the origins of her weight problem as I was reading about it.  In other words, it was another compelling read.

And that’s what a memoir should be!


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