Autobiography versus Memoir

by Kim on August 5, 2008 · 10 comments

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.

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