Monday, January 11, 2010

What's It Called When You Write About Your Own Life

Here's one for the group: What is the difference between autobiography and memoir?  Is it just a matter "pot-AY-to" / "pot-AH-to," or is there a real, defined delineation between the two?  Does it even matter?

My general sense is this: Presidents, poets and scientists write memoirs, whereas athletes, actors and porn stars write autobiographies. To me, just the word "memoir" has that ineffable je ne sais quoi that makes it high-brow, thoughtful, and decidedly not trashy. Not that all autobiographies ARE trashy, but memoirs most certainly ARE NOT. Memoir is personal and emotional, whereas autobiograpy is simply a chronological chronicle of things that happened, without much exposition.

I've read a few that would probably fit into either category, and a few that I'm not sure how to classify. For instance, and the reason I've been tossing this whole question around in the back of my skull, is that even though tennis legend Andre Agassi's recent book Open is subtitled "An Autobiography," and even though he's an athlete, and even though it does contains tawdry details about his love life and drug use, the book still has an incredible amount of heart and passion. It's sort of halfway in between.

In the camp of decidedly memoir is Israeli writer Amos Oz's book, A Tale of Love and Darkness. The book, about growing up in war-torn Israel, is richly affecting and poetic. It's probably the best of the memoirography genre I've read. 

I don't read too many of these, so help me out — what, in your mind, is the difference?  What are some of the better memoirographies you've read?

10 comments:

  1. Memoirs,in general,focus on a certain part of a person's life-for example,Julie Powell's Julie and Julia-where as autobiographies are meant to showcase the full picture,so to speak,of the author's life.

    The best autobios,in my opinion,are written when the subject is at his/her "golden years". By then,a person ought to be able to have a true perspective on where their path in life has taken them. I read a lot of movie star bios,auto and otherwise,when I was in my teens and Gloria Swanson's Swanson on Swanson still stands out in my mind. It's probably out of print but worth a look if you ever stumble across it somewhere.

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  2. I agree with lady t in terms of the memoir being about a specific aspect of a person's life whereas an autobiography is the whole life. I would definitely classify Open as an autobiography.

    I disagree with you though about who writes memoirs versus autobiographies. Presidents, scientists, and poets write autobiographies -- even if they say they're writing their "memoirs" its an autobiography. Memoirs, I find, tend to be by people who have a specific story to tell, in which case they're likely to be unknowns. No one knew who Mary Karr was before she wrote The Liar's Club. Now she's a memoirist. I wouldn't use the quality -- either of the work or of the life -- as a distinction.

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  3. @lady t - Yeah, I agree that "memoir" implies a more specific story - that's a good point.

    @home - Interesting point about a memoirist being a virutal unknown before publishing his/her story. Wouldn't have thought of that.

    I didn't mean so much the quality of the work as the distinguishing factor, but the tone. Trashy can still be high quality! ;)

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  4. I don't know - I've always thought of an autobiography as the story of a whole life whereas a memoir is one specific point in life. Like lady t already said.
    I also agree with home, that people who write memoirs tend to be unknowns whereas people who write autobiographies are people that the public already cares about.
    SO you read Open - I guess I've got to go back and find your review. I previously had no interest, but now that I see it has "an incredible amount of heart and passion," I'm suddenly feeling interested.
    I've been wanting to read a Tale of Love and Darkness for a while now. . .

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  5. I think your definition is pretty great! I think of memoirs as having more lyrical writing--as being creative nonfiction--whereas autobiographies are more fact with less (or no) focus on the writing itself. Here is a post with some of my favorite memoirs:
    http://smallworldreads.blogspot.com/2008/07/sunday-salon-on-memoirs.html

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  6. @SmallWorld - Thanks for agreeing with me - I was getting beat up there for a little while. :) Great list, too. Admittedly, the only one I've read is Night, but I'd always wondered about The Glass Castle - added to TBR

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  7. This very issue was just discussed on NPR's Talk of the Nation. A guest was talking about memoirs and how they have changed over the years. Lady T said it best and it matches how NPR explained it.
    I loved Glass Castles, it was powerful and heartbreaking but oh the writing was wonderful! AJ Jacobs has written a couple of books based on yearly experiments. These are classified as memoirs and are among my personal favorite. The year of living Biblically is thought provoking and humorous. I highly recommend it.

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  8. Thanks,everyone,for liking my explanation and I second the recommendation for Glass Castles. Also enjoyed A.J. Jacobs' books,too and a really unique approach to telling a life story can be found in Toast by Nigel Slater.

    Slater recounts the major memories of his life by foods(both good and bad)eaten during those times. Sounds very Proust,but it's more down to earth than you'd expect.

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  9. Interesting, I never thought about memoirs as being about a specific part in the author's life. My grandpa is writing one now, I wonder if it's going to be truly a memoir or an autobiography.

    Good question, Greg! I haven't really read either of these so I'd never given it much thought.

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  10. I love memoirs and I generally think of them as being less dry then an autobiography. A couple of my favorite memoirs are Mao's Last Dancer by by Cunxin Li and All Rivers Run to the Sea by Elie Wiesel. I also really to read well-written travel memoirs (particularly those by Bill Bryson and Peter Mayle).Stolen Lives by Malika Oufkir is also a very powerful memoir that I highly recommend.

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