Memoir vs. autobiography, Or, “It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s hundreds of boys and girls! And they’re all famous!”

The lush fertile womb of the New and Featured Nonfiction collection on the First Floor of the Main Library has recently given birth to a new Biographies section. It’s 144 inches and 250+ pounds of pure neonatal delight!

Now, everyone knows that nothing is begotten without labor pains. What could be painful about this new collection? For me, it is comes down to one word: Memoirs. Every Tom, Dick, and Harry has written one, and if we put them all into the Biographies section, we would have one giant, unwieldy baby on our hands. But how can we differentiate the memoirs from the autobiographies?

Here I quote Nigel Hamilton from his 2008 book How to Do Biography: A Primer: “Memoirs may be manipulated and selective…Amusing, informative, possibly deceitful, often self-deceiving, memoirs are extended self-portraits that whether pompous or humble, reflect the time in which they are composed—even if they do not shed much light on the author’s character” (p. 281).

Using St. Augustine, Frederick Douglass, and Anne Frank as examples, Hamilton defines autobiography as “the relentless record and examination of one’s own life: a quest for mental freedom through truthfulness” (p. 293).

However, my confusion multiplied when I consulted the Dictionary of Literary Terms and Literary Theory (4th Edition), edited by J. A. Cuddon. Autobiography is described in these terms: “Everyone recalls what he or she wants to remember. Disagreeable facts are sometimes glossed over or repressed, truth may be distorted for the sake of convenience or harmony and the occlusions of time may obscure as much as they reveal.” It doesn’t seem that anyone can agree on a definition or a concrete way to differentiate the two. To make matters worse, many of the review tools that we use when deciding on our purchases label items “biography” indiscriminately.

So, as a rule, I generally use these guidelines:
• The subject of the autobiography is the person, rather than a time, place, or experience (or other aspects of a person’s life).
• The subject of the autobiography is famous, outside of the book itself.
• The autobiography covers (most of) the person’s entire life. The memoir may only cover a certain segment.
• If other libraries label a book a biography, so will I. Sometimes.

Here are a few pop cultural books sitting on our Biographies shelf:

Redneck Boy in the Promised Land: The Confessions of “Crazy Cooter” by Ben Jones
You Can Run But You Can’t Hide by Duane “Dog” Chapman
Don’t Hassel the Hoff: The Autobiography by David Hasselhoff
Dr. Dre: The Biography by Ronin Ro

So come down and check out the Hoff’s autobiography. It has drama, photos, and everything you ever wanted to know about Baywatch, and it’s been sitting lonely for too long. Have you read any good memoirs (or autobiographies) lately?

–Bonnie

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Memoir vs. autobiography, Or, “It’s a boy! It’s a girl! It’s hundreds of boys and girls! And they’re all famous!”

  1. it brings to mind a favorite quote.

    “Biography is a very definite region bounded on the north by history, on the south by fiction, on the east by obituary, and on the west by tedium.”

    Philip Guedalla

    (love, amy)

  2. Don

    B: Great job … you nailed it, with aplomb … D

  3. Irene

    Great post! Autobiographies are probably my favorite all time genre of books. Ronnie Spector’s “Be My Baby” and Marianne Faithfull’s “Faithfull” are two of my favorites.

  4. Lisa

    I’ve always wondered what exactly it was that separates the two…thanks…and btw your recommendations…wow…what a selection!

  5. Great post! Further complicating matters are the theory books that masquerade as memoirs because they use personal details to illustrate examples (such as Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, by Julia Serano). When I was a kid, I tore through athlete autobiographies, such as Gayle Sayers’s I Am Third (the inspiration for Brian’s Song) and Ditka, An Autobiography (if you don’t know who that’s by, you are no friend of mine).

    I probably haven’t read one since I was 12, but I’ll be gosh darned if I don’t want to peruse the section now. Schanks!

  6. Excellent post and list, Bonnie!

    I’m not keen on biography/memoir, usually, but these picks have me thinking. And, I confess, I’m looking forward to peeking at Andy Taylor’s forthcoming Wild Boy: My Life in Duran Duran.

    What? ;)

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