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Autobiography versus Memoir

Photo by flickr user dbdbrobot. After reading and reviewing Blankets by Craig Thompson, I got started thinking about the differences between the genres of memoir and autobiography. I was discussing Blankets as a memoir, but a lot of the other things I’ve read call it an “autobiographical graphic novel.” Both genres have really similar qualities, but I wondered if there is an important difference between memoir and autobiography?

I started looking for answers to this question in my trusty Handbook of Literature (copyright 1986) that I got at our campus book sale last year for a quarter.

Autobiography. The story of a person’s life as written by that person. … Whereas memoirs deal at least in part with public events and notes personages other than the author, an autobiography is a connected narrative of the author’s life, with some stress on introspection.

Memoir: A form of autobiographical writing dealing usually with the recollections of one who has been a part of or witnessed significant events. Memoirs differ from autobiography proper in that they are usually concerned with personalities and actions other than those of the writer, whereas autobiography stresses the inner and private life of its subject.

In many ways, I think these definitions are a little dated. Most memoirs I’ve read lately have been deeply personal, not focusing on recollections of otherwise witnessed events. However, I think the memoirs I like best are those that are able to focus a personal experience around a larger issue, something like Escula Caribe in Jesus Land, for example. I do like the distiction of autobiography as a connected narrative, as opposed to memoir as something focused on smaller events and personalities other than that of the author.

I found another brief article on the topic by Laura Tretter, Director of the San Juan Island Library. She used the Oxford English Dictionary and came up with two definitions:

Autobiography: The writing of one’s own history; the story of one’s life written by himself.

Memoir: A person’s written account of incidents in his own life, the persons whom he has known, and the transactions or movements in which he has been concerned; an autobiographical record.

That’s not really much of a difference, but may be enough to start making some sense. Tretter also included an analogy explanation from author Ariel Gore:

“A memoir is to a journalistic autobiography as a movie ‘based on real life events’ is to a documentary.”

I’m not sure if I like that one as much, since there is so much bad press about movies ‘based on real life events’ and how much they stretch the truth — I somehow like to think memoirs are more accurate than that, although books like A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers may make that distinction a little dicey.

What I’ve come to believe is that an autobiography is more chronological and biographical — it seeks to cover the entire events of a person’s life in such a way to summarize a life full of varied experiences. Memoir, on the other hand, doesn’t seek to cover everything. Instead, memoirs tend to be more thematic, more selective, and more willing to use elements of fiction and imagination to sell a theme rather than a chronology of events. Memoirs also are a little more wide-spread, including other characters and personalities in the narrative of the story rather than focusing entirely on retrospection.

Clearly, I find myself more drawn to memoir than autobiography. I’m often much less interested in reading the entirety of someone’s life than I am with selected moments that, when strung together, create a coherent message of theme that can be somehow universally understood. I love the sense of universal understanding of a human experience that you can get with fiction, but I somehow find myself more drawn to stories that have actually happened to people.

What do you think? Do those distinctions make sense? Is there even a purpose to distinguish between the two? How would a comic book like Blankets fit with either of the genres?

Photo by flickr user dbdbrobot.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Rebecca Reid August 5, 2008, 11:14 pm

    I think there is a huge difference between autobiography and memoir, at least in my mind.

    My distinction is that autobiography covers their entire life with somewhat of a detached perspective while memoir focuses on specific situations.

    For example, I recently read the autobiographies of Katharine Graham and Nelson Mandela (pre-blogging). These began mostly when they were children and followed the main events of their lives, even including a chapter about where their parents came from so we had a perspective of the setting they were born into. Sometimes there was reflection such as “I didn’t realize but this prepared me for ____ in the future” but mostly it was chronological.

    On the other hand, I’ve read a few memoirs recently, such as The Glass Castle (pre-blogging) and Madeleine L’Engle’s first memoir. The Glass Castle began with a modern-day moment when she saw her mom digging in a dumpster, then it went back to when she was three years old (her first memory) then it follows various memories she had through her life that made her into who she was. Madeleine L’Engle’s memoir follows various events in one summer, going back to other years, all focusing around one subject.

    I like all four books, but they were different formats completely. If I want to know about a person’s life, an autobiography is the format I like. If I want the “feel” of their life, I go with a memoir. (Of course, what person writing a memoir also writes an autobiography….)

    I think autobiographical novel is completely different. The names and settings could be different or even fabricated, but the events might closely resemble events in the author’s life. I haven’t read Blankets so I don’t know which of the three categories would most be appropriate.

    But who really decides what each genre is? This is what I think of, but others may think differently. Great questions to ask.

  • Rebecca Reid August 5, 2008, 11:15 pm

    wow, that was long….. sorry

  • Kim August 6, 2008, 4:36 pm

    Rebecca: Ha ha, that’s ok, those are good thoughts. I like the distinction about autobiography covering a whole life, and memoir only covering specific instances. That seems to separate those to genres pretty well, in most instances.

    I’m still not totally sure what I think of the idea of an “autobiographical novel” though. Would an autobiographical novel be less close to “the truth” than a memoir because it takes actual events but fictionalizes them? It seems like many novels are “autobiographical” in the sense that authors may draw on their own experiences to write the stories, Fitzgerald or Hemingway for example, if I’m remembering American Lit correctly 🙂

    I’m still not sure which category is best for Blankets either, I’ll have to keep thinking.

  • theexile August 12, 2008, 3:55 pm

    I took a course in grad school on autobiography in which we read nonfiction (Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son comes to mind, the book which incidentally Wikipedia — not the most reliable source — labels a memoir) fiction (George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar), as well as poetry (T.S. Eliot’s Four Quartets), and most of our seminar discussions centered on veracity — what was really true, especially when the autobiographer fictionalized himself or herself. George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans)even created a persona for herself, using the pseudonym of a male writer. One of the chief things we considered was that each of the writers, whether they wrote fiction or nonfiction, created personas on the page; the whole person could never really be known, even to the writer.

    The written persona is just one aspect of the personality, so autobiographical fiction is autobiography because it reveals part of a personality, as much as the writer will allow. In that sense, I suppose, most writing is autbiographical, given, I believe, that writing is connected so closely to personality.

    As far as distinguishing between memoir and autobiography, I’m not sure there is that much of a distinction, except perhaps that autobiography tends to follow a whole life, or a good chunk of that life, whereas a memoir follows a portion of life and seems centered around a particular theme. Edmund Gosse, for instance, chronicles thematically his break from his parents and their strict religious views to a much more naturalistic perspective of the world.


  • Kim August 12, 2008, 6:23 pm

    Todd: Your point about veracity and an author creating a persona is great; in both autobiography and memoir there is a character that emerges about the author which is certainly not everything the author is in real life. And I agree, I think a lot of writing is in some ways autobiographical — it’s why we still do autobiographical criticism when analyzing literature, and why authorship is such a big deal when looking at an unfamiliar text.

  • Tabitha February 2, 2009, 2:42 pm

    FYI: Blankets was written by Craig Thompson, not Christopher! This is an intriguing conversation though, and I was happy to have stumbled upon it!

  • Kim February 2, 2009, 2:44 pm

    Tabitha: Thank you, what a dorky mistake on my part!

  • Care September 11, 2009, 8:26 am

    In my mind, autobiography deals with a long life and starts at the beginning (in other words, you have to be at least 75 yo to write an autobio?!) AND… the term memoir seems to be more marketable. but I could be way off base; just my opinion.

    • Kim September 12, 2009, 7:30 am

      Yeah, autobiography always seems longer to me. It’s trying to sum up a person’s entire experience. Memoirs are much more focused and small, trying to capture some part of experience but not all of it. And yeah, memoir is more marketable — I don’t think people think much about the term and so just think about it as “autobiography light” or something 🙂

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