Are Autobiographies Literature?

Contemporary literature puts a lot of emphasis on the “inspired by true events.” The fictional, which by definition means invented, imagined into existence, sustained by the magic of the arts, no longer interests the modern day reader. Literature must have, at its foundations, a bit of the real world, an element from an author’s biography, as if better understanding reality can only be done when reading about “true events.”

But what is true? What is real? What happened? What didn’t?

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini is considered to be the first autobiographic work in the history of literature, even though Saint Augustine’s Confessions predates it by quite a few centuries.

Even so, it’s not until the eighteenth century, with the works of Rousseau and Goethe, that the autobiography finds its way into mainstream literature.

But what does it mean?

The author is the same as the narrator, the autobiography having as main theme the man behind the curtains. It seems to me that one writes about oneself in an attempt to create his own identity for any reader who might pick up his book.

This is my story, this is who I am.

Now, remind me how’s that any different from fiction? From Science Fiction?

Maybe it’s different because an autobiography is all truth; it’s a medium of complete honesty, the road map of an unique and strange individual. It’s the expression of a brilliant destiny.

Suspension of disbelief is no longer needed, even though, in most cases, truth is stranger than fiction. I strenuously believe that the one argument we can make in favor of autobiographies being literature is that the person who writes such a book must have some extraordinary tales to tell.

Autobiographies reside at the frontier between reality and desire, combining self-delusion, pure fantasy, confessions, self-loathing, pride, an inflated sense of self, into something that, if we were to check and double check, would surely be farther from the truth than one might like it to be.

Psychologists claim that our memories change over time. Whenever we recall a certain event, the way we perceive it changes. According to our thoughts and feelings. We actually do change our past, giving everything that has happened to us new meaning every single time we remember it.

I believe that we all wish to live a life of epic proportions. Maybe one is not aware of this element unless one sits down at his desk and begins to write about himself as if he were another.

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13 thoughts on “Are Autobiographies Literature?

  1. Well-said. I also think that while memoirs and autobiographies are “true,” the author tends to work pretty hard to find (and in some cases embellish) the underlying arc of events, and brings them to the forefront of the narrative.

  2. Yes, I’ve written a book based on my life, but we can never tell exact past events because we see our lives through our own perception, not through the perception of others. But if we are genuine, I still think truth comes out. I would add that writer’s like Jonathan Swift told the truth through fiction in a story like Gulliver’s Travels so that his head would stay on his shoulders. In my book, not that I am a Swift, I also fictionalize some characteristics to protect others. Today, however, people want to know more about the writer than the story, so we value truth. As one that sat down and said that I would write the whole truth, everything that came to mind, no matter how wrong, disturbing, beautiful, or amateur, I think there is real value in such stories, no matter how some run from them.
    Yet, I find it hard to believe that Nabokov did not understand the subject and themes in Lolita so much better than he noted. One does not write a masterpiece by only dabbling in a subject in a news paper. Maybe he wanted to keep his head on his shoulders.

  3. How coincidental is it that I read this post on this day of all days when my father launched his autobiography. I am not so touchy-feely with my dad but reading his memoir for the first time, I realised that he was human. He was a child, he grew, he had expectations and goals, and he met them (lost some).
    For me, autobiograpies are like a time capsule. We can peep into the past and see how things were from the perspective of the “protagonist” who isn’t the glorious hero guided by plot, which we see in some fiction.
    My experience with autobiographies is that its relatable to the reader: the feeling of empathy one gets from reading his/her documentations is natural.

  4. Well, I teach literature and autobiography is not classified as literature or literary because often autobiographies are lack complex themes and other literary devices. There are exceptions. Also, traditionally, literature stands the test of time and is not based on current events unless those events have historical value.

  5. Autobiography definitely can be literature. I don’t think the argument given by dropoutprofessor that autobiographies often lack complex themes or other literary devices is relevant because the same could be said about a great amount of fiction. Nor the comment about literature not being based upon current events as what is held as value historically is not determined by anything outside of the person or society perceiving that history. I am a student of history and much historical studies don’t strike me of having much or any value at all, so I’m not sure on which criteria that judgement is even based.

    Just as much fiction is not necessarily “great” or something which will stand the test of time, the same can be said about autobiographies. It is likely that there would have to be some intention in the writer in order for an autobiography to become a work of great literature.

    There is also more to be said about truth-value in literature. I don’t think it’s only an issue of not needing to suspend disbelief, self-aggrandizement, or self-understanding. One way that I don’t think the potential of autobiography, memoir, and even a creative kind of journalism has been fully realized is that part of the work of literature (though not necessarily the whole of it) is to provide people with a deeper grasp of the world and our place in it.

    That can be done through autobiography in a way that I don’t think fiction can because autobiography must deal with the world as it truly is, and I don’t just mean as a world of forms (institutions, existing technology, customs, etc.) but the actual historical reality of whether our intentions fail or whether there happens to be someone who agrees with our aims or opposes us.

    The issue brought up about how our perception influences our memories is not necessarily a problem for the truth-factor in autobiographies because that fact, particularly if it is conscious in the writer, is part of all human life experience and thus impacts our understanding of the world and how we are to navigate our way through it.

  6. Wonderful discussion piece. I love the idea of exploring our definition of literature and what is within the realms and what isn’t. I think it’s a solid point that the tone of “storytelling” in autobiographies helps bring them into that realm of literature. Thought provoking!

  7. Great piece. Some really good food for thought. I’d probably put some in the category of literature, but a lot of autobiographies tend to be little more than puff pieces, or presidential aspirants attempting to sell their policies. As for truth, well, I’d say that is debatable.

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