Life Writing

The Encyclopedia of the Novel - Peter Melville Logan 2014

Life Writing

Kate Douglas

“Life writing” is an inclusive term used to describe the multitude of ways people construct “true” stories about their lives and/or the lives of others. The term is often used interchangeably with “life narrative,” “autobiography,” “auto/biography,” “autobiographical fiction,” “biography,” “memoir,” and “first-person media.” There are distinct differences between these alternative terms—particularly as they represent diverse subgenres and movements within what has been historically known as “autobiography.” Though the term “life writing” has been in use since the eighteenth century, it has gained currency in recent times as an umbrella term to represent all forms of nonfictional life-story telling (Jolly; Smith and Watson, 2001). Life writing attempts to circumvent problems associated with the term autobiography—which has historically been associated with an exclusive genre of writing—dominated by portraits of “great men.” Alternative terms such as “memoir” attempted to broaden and reshape the field—to promote life stories that had been excluded by the limits of autobiography. Life writing proposes to broaden the parameters of life and self-representation even further, to promote a greater inclusiveness, and to provide a site for the cross-examination of an expansive set of life-story texts. Life writing considers the multitude of ways that people narrate their lives and the lives of others, in light of the texts and technologies people use to record these lives. Thus the term “life writing” has come to encompass texts other than written texts—oral testimony, artifacts, visual texts (photography, film, on-line media), and so on (Jolly, ix).

A Brief History of Life Writing

People have been engaged in life writing—in telling stories about their lives—for centuries. This extends back to, and possibly even before the Greeks and Romans, and beyond Western culture (Jolly; Smith and Watson, 2001). Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson outline some of the oral traditions in which life narrative played a key role, dating back thousands of years—various African, Australian indigenous, Chinese and Japanese, Indian, Islamic-Arabic, and Native American cultures (2001). Within Western contexts, some of the earliest forms of life writing include “oration”—an oral plea for a cause (e.g., Julius Caesar); “apologia”—a written defense of one's opinions or actions (Socrates); “confession”—traditionally addressed to God and/or a human reader, in which the speaker seeks absolution from the listener (St. Augustine); and the “life” (Teresa of Ávila). The influence of each of these early forms can be traced through life writing that followed—particularly as life writing has continued to provide mechanisms for the construction and justification of experiences and identities.

Biography, for instance, flourished from the seventeenth century, experiencing its golden age in the late eighteenth century. Key proponents include Samuel Johnson (1779—1781, Lives of the Poets), Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1782, 1789, Les Confessions; The Confessions) and Thomas Carlyle (1841, On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History). Lytton Strachey (1918, Eminent Victorians; 1921, Queen Victoria; 1928, Elizabeth and Essex) is thought to have revolutionized the form, asserting the artful “constructedness” of biography. According to Strachey, the biographer's craft and choice were important components of writing biographically. The biographer enters the text through these choices, searching for the intimate (sometimes unflattering) inner lives of the subjects.

Margaretta Jolly contends that alongside biography, “autobiography, diaries, and personal letters have been widespread since the eighteenth century” (ix). Some notable diarists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries include Fanny Burney, Lady Mary Coke (1727—1811), Henry Fielding, Jonathan Swift, Dorothy Wordsworth (1771—1855), George Eliot, and Queen Victoria (1819—1901). Some used the diary to supplement and document their fictional writing; others used the diary to record travels and details of everyday life. William Wordsworth (1770—1850) experimented with life writing in poetic form in The Prelude (1799, 1805, 1850). Autobiographical poetry has been taken up by countless poets since—including Walt Whitman (1819—92), Robert Frost (1874—1963), and Sylvia Plath.

Whatever the form, a common preoccupation of life writing is the development of the self (whether from childhood to adulthood, or toward self-awareness; see bildungsroman). Life writing has evolved through the ages, reflecting cultural shifts in the limits of self-disclosure and the ethics of writing lives.

Life Writing: Recent Developments

Since the 1990s, life writing has become one of the most talked-about literary genres and has been a boom commercial product (see Eakin; Gilmore; Smith and Watson, 1998, 2001). Many scholars, media commentators, and book-trade practitioners agree that the late twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries have been the “first-person era.” Review publications have abounded with discussions of the significance of these life-writing trends, focusing on what it implies about its readerships. The genre has become a site where a range of literary-cultural politics are fought out, raising an array of new ideological concerns (see IDEOLOGY), particularly in relation to self-disclosure, memory, and the ethics of representation.

Life-writing scholarship has grown exponentially; journals, books, and conferences have flourished, and university courses have sprung up internationally, alongside community workshops on life writing. Life-writing scholarship during this period has been preoccupied with autobiographical writing and social justice, trauma, and testimony, the rights and responsibilities of representing oneself and others, subjectivity, authority, and ethics (see Couser; Eakin; Egan; Gilmore; Smith and Watson, 1998, 2001; Whitlock).

Elements of life writing can be found within almost all other literary forms. However, in recent times a number of subgenres have emerged strongly within life writing: from trauma narratives and inspirational self-help texts, through to travel writing, graphic novels, and social networking technologies, to name just a few notable trends.

Perhaps the most infamous publishing trend of the 1990s was the autobiography of childhood—a piece of autobiographical writing concerned with the narration of childhood life experiences. Autobiographers such as Mary Karr (1995, The Liars' Club), Frank McCourt (1996, Angela's Ashes), and James McBride (1996, The Color of Water) burst on to the American literary scene in the mid-1990s, paving the way for a plethora of similarly styled texts to follow. These autobiographies were distinctive for their depiction of traumatic childhoods characterized by abuse, poverty, discrimination, and identity struggles.

Trauma and testimony have become dominant movements in contemporary life writing (Felman and Laub; Gilmore). Consider the plethora of individual narratives testifying to abuse within the family; controversial personal historians such as Salam Pax (2003, The Baghdad Blog); other memoirs stemming from “the war on terror” (Whitlock); and the boy soldier from Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah (2007, A Long Way Gone). Personal narratives of pain and suffering have been the cornerstone of life narrative throughout the 1990s and early 2000s. These texts provide a human link (for readers) to access and reflect upon broader social and political events.

Directly linked to trauma and testimony is the “self-help (life) narrative.” In these, everyday people tell stories of recovery from addiction and dependency. These books are commonly formulaic—the fall, the road to recovery, and the final transformation into a model citizen ready to share his or her story with others (Linde; Smith and Watson, 2001). Notorious for challenging and extending the limits of self-disclosure, some well-known self-help life-writing texts are Marya Hornbacher's Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia (1998), Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted (1993), Elizabeth Wurtzel's Prozac Nation (1994), and Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman's Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia (2006), a hybrid inspirational travel-writing narrative.

Travel writing is a mode of life writing in which writers blend autobiographical stories of places, lives, and self. Novels, guidebooks, magazine and newspaper articles, and websites are some of the different ways in which travel writing reaches readerships. The “personal essay” is another mode of life writing gaining momentum. Dating back to Michel de Montaigne (1533—92), the contemporary personal essay is most likely found in newspapers and magazines and works as a type of opinion piece—an opportunity for the author to engage with topical cultural or political issues via their own personal experiences.

The graphic novel has provided another mechanism for life writing, with the emergence of works such as Harvey Pekar's American Splendor (1976—93), Art Spiegleman's Maus (1986—91), and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis (2003). The use of the graphic novel/comic form to tell stories about everyday life demonstrates the pervasiveness of life stories, their applicability to diverse contexts, and the broad ranging readerships for life stories.

The advent of the internet and other new media forms such as digital photography, film, and sound technologies has created a wealth of new tools for the creation and dissemination of life writing texts. “Web 2.0” is a term used to encompass the myriad ways in which the world wide web has encouraged creativity and collaboration for everyday people via the networking tools it offers. For example, “blogs”—websites or (more often) on-line diaries provide a mechanism for “bloggers” to self-publish stories of their life and/or offer social commentary in the form of written words, audio or visual entries, artwork, etc. Social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook offer unprecedented opportunities for everyday people to become life writers—to post written and visual information about themselves, friends, and families to a potentially limitless audience.

Life Writing as Literature

Despite the popularity of these forms, life writing occupies an uneasy and hotly contested space in contemporary literature. There are many who challenge the literary value of life writing—a consequence of the sensationalism and controversy that has accompanied many recent life-writing texts. For example, a number of debates have emerged consistently in theoretical discussions of life writing: the “hoax” or fake memoir (witness the Helen Demidenko, James Frey, Norma Khouri, and Rigoberta Menchú controversies); the ethics of life writing—what rights and responsibilities come into play when telling “true” stories about others? (Consider the case of Augusten Burroughs, whose publisher was sued by his foster family after their unflattering representation in Burroughs's 2002 autobiography Running with Scissors). memory controversies have also surrounded life writing—the desire of critics and readers for autobiographers to authenticate their memories through autobiography. Ishmael Beah's story of his time as a child soldier in the government army during the civil war in Sierra Leone was challenged by the Australian newspaper, which disputed the veracity of some of the dates presented by Beah in his autobiography, and in doing so, raised more general questions about the credibility of the book.

Such scrutiny of life writing is highly problematic on many levels. It fails to recognize the long-held belief (within life writing genres) of the constructedness of all life writing. There is no such thing as pure life writing—life writing that holds a mirror up to a person's life and reflects back the events as they happened. There is an obvious difference between organic memory loss and/or traumatic memory loss and the deliberate and strategic imposture of authors like Demidenko and Khouri. Criticizing an autobiography such as Beah's also fails to consider the impact that trauma might have had upon his memory and his ability to tell his story faithfully.

Fiction and nonfictional forms of writing share a long and mutually influential history. For example, autobiographical fiction, fictional auto/biography, or the semiautobiographical novel are terms that have been used to describe texts which would seem to straddle, whether deliberately or due to their reception, fiction and nonfiction. These texts are often realist novels that draw on some of the traditions of life writing to advance the story in some way. In the eighteenth century Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719—22) and Laurence Sterne's Sentimental Journey (1768) could each be described as autobiographical fictions. In the nineteenth century, many novels that used an intimate first-person narrator were presented as autobiographical—Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre (1847) and Charles Dickens's David Copperfield (1850). This tradition continued into the twentieth century with novels like James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and J. D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye (1951) (see Smith and Watson 2001). And there has been a great amount of autobiographical work (published as fiction) ever since. Contemporary authors working in this mode, blurring the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, include Jeanette Winterson, J. M. Coetzee, James Frey, Christa Wolf, Tobias Wolff, and Australian authors such as Larissa Behrendt and Drusilla Modjeska. There are a number of reasons why authors may opt to take this literary. For example, the hybrid genre offers the opportunity for authors to construct “true” stories without the pressures of autobiographical accountability; it potentially allows for greater creative license and ambiguity than autobiography; and generally speaking, fiction has retained a level of literary credibility not often afforded to life-writing genres. Further, this form of writing reflects the demands of the literary marketplace. At times when fiction is more marketable, autobiographical works are published as fiction. At times when life writing has been extremely popular (e.g., the late 1990s and 2000s), first-time novelists have been asked if the work could be repackaged as life writing. And positioning a text ambiguously between the two genres can also make the text more marketable, potentially drawing readerships interested in either genre.

Despite constant suggestions (within literary circles) that life writing is in decline, it continues to flourish in the forms and texts outlined above. Life writing has myriad interdisciplinary extensions—important to literary critics, historians, theologians, anthropologists, sociologists, and psychologists—who are interested in how lives become stories and the implications of telling these stories (Jolly 2001, ix; see ANTHROPOLOGY, PSYCHOLOGICAL). The interdisciplinary breadth of the term life writing suggests that it warrants, indeed deserves, further interrogation with regard to its theoretical limits.

SEE ALSO: Adaptation/Appropriation, Censorship, Decorum/Verisimilitude, Genre Theory, Narrative Perspective, Time.


1. Couser, G.T. (2003), Vulnerable Subjects.

2. Eakin, P.J. (1999), How Our Lives Became Stories.

3. Egan, S. (1999), Mirror Talk.

4. Felman, S. and D. Laub (1992), Testimony.

5. Gilmore, L. (2001), Limits of Autobiography.

6. Jolly, M., ed., (2001), Encyclopedia of Life Writing.

7. Lejeune, P. (1989), On Autobiography, ed. P.J. Eakin.

8. Linde, C. (1993), Life Stories.

9. Smith, S. and J. Watson (1996), Getting a Life.

10. Smith, S. and J. Watson (1998), Women, Autobiography, Theory.

11. Smith, S. and J. Watson (2001), Reading Autobiography.

12. Whitlock, G. (2007), Soft Weapons.