The possible steps between biography and fiction seem to increase from year to year. Ian Jack, writing in the Guardian in 2003, commented, “Writing one’s own personal history used to be called autobiography. Now, more and more, it is called memoir.” Since then, the variety of memoirs has proliferated: we have the traditional memoir, the constructed one, the fictionalised and finally the fictional. This last categorization may still be greeted by a furore as some degree of “truth” is still demanded of the genre.
Biographies may trace accurately the life of someone, usually a person, well-known for their achievements or notorious for the life they’ve led. Though stuffed with facts and footnotes and even using the actual words of their subject culled from letters, diaries and interviews, the biographer usually remains somewhat detached presenting an overview of the subject’s life, achievements and importance. An autobiography on the other hand, written from the subject’s point of view, is likely to be more intimate but will also follow the trajectory of the writer’s life, from birth to the present, and the factual events of that life and the memories of the writer will provide the structure for it.
Memoirs are often not about the interesting lives of prominent achievers. We may never have heard of the writers or their careers, if they have them. Instead a memoir usually focuses on a particular aspect of the writer’s life, and shares with the reader an emotional experience, whether that is a relationship with a parent, a spouse, a child, even a pet, or sometimes a death and its aftermath, or maybe a special period spent in a different country or sailing round the world. How these examples affected the writer is an important component of the memoir. The memoirist is front and centre of his/her own story. After all he/she has lived it. As Ian Jack says, a memoir “wants to do more than record the past, it wants to recreate it”. In doing so, it often adopts many of fiction’s techniques.
A post by Shuly X. Cawood, re-blogged from Brevity’s Non-Fiction Blog on March 7th, argues that memoirs like other stories need to hook the reader so that they will care enough about the people to keep reading. She too advises memoirists to use the novelists’ methods of developing people into “characters”, thus making them more real to the reader. Of course this construction may also deepen the writer’s understanding of those who have a role in his/her story.
But where do our stories come from? Are our memories, and those of the people in our stories, reliable? When they differ, can we reconcile them? And how can we avoid fictionalising if we use dialogue, emphasise a person’s eccentricities, work to make all our characters super-real, by recording their background, or by interpreting available documents, or by speculating about the effect of “major” world events on subsidiary characters as well as on the protagonist?
These days it is acceptable if memoirs offer “believability rather than verifiable information” (Ian Jack again). But at what point has an author left behind autobiography or memoir and turned to fiction? If we find out that the memoirist has merged two incidents or characters or “misremembered” some event, perhaps deliberately, do we, as readers, lose faith in the writer?
Another question: if we write about our families and their stories, particularly of those relations we never knew and only heard about from others, how do we prevent our account from becoming a family history—no longer a memoir? Is this possible if the book examines chosen members and their lives and how the family and its culture have influenced the writer? Maybe the memoir’s subject then becomes how the search for the writer’s roots was a journey that changed him /her.
On the other hand, in a recent New York Times review of Time Pieces, by Irish novelist, John Banville, Robert Rosenblatt praises this “delicious” memoir for transporting him so completely into Banville’s past. And he comments that, “better memoirs tend not to be principally about the suffering of the author but what the author has noticed in his or her life, what is cherished or abhorred—often about pure information worth imparting. The better memoirs are the more generous, looking outside the self.”
So perhaps memoir is such an expansive welcoming form that it embraces a great variety of “stories”. In which case, readers can just continue to enjoy the ones that appeal, for whatever reason, and pass up the rest!