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Life Writing Essay

2642 words - 11 pages

Why has life writing become one of literature’s most controversial and contested genres? Discuss with reference to two of the following concepts: memory, identity, subjectivity, hoax, authenticity, ‘truth’, or trauma.

Life writing has long existed in the world of literature. Where once it was confined to the autobiographies, memoirs, and diaries of women before feminism, since the 1990’s it has exploded into a phenomenon that covers many different sub genres and medium. (Douglas, K. 2009. p. 2) Its popularity, however, has caused it to come under scrutiny, and in recent times it has become one of literature’s most controversial and contested genres. The concepts of memory and ...view middle of the document...

’ (Douglas, K. 2009. p. 1) Furthermore, Smith and Watson describe life writing as an ‘overarching term used for a variety of nonfictional modes of writing that claim to engage the shaping of someone’s life.’ (Smith and Watson, 2001) The simplest sub-genre of life writing is autobiography, which Smith and Watson define as ‘the story of one’s life written by himself.’ (Smith and Watson, 2001, p. 1) They argue that nothing can be simpler than an individual writing about the thing that they know best: themselves. (Smith and Watson, 2001, p. 1) Life writing, however, has come to cover a plethora of different sub-genres, and spans many different type of media. These can include letters, memoirs, confessions, autobiographies, autobiographical fiction, biographies, diaries, journals, testimonies, blogs, documentaries, and even death notices. Defining a life writing narrative can be difficult, as it may span more than one sub-genre. Life writing has begun to receive so much attention from scholars not only because it is so fluid and is constantly evolving, but because concepts such as memory and trauma influence the credibility and authenticity of an author’s narrative.
The concept of memory is one which threatens the credibility of all life writing authors. Many authors will draw on historical evidence when crafting their narratives. This could be the use of sources such as journals, photographs, recorded conversations, or letters, and use them to add to their personal knowledge of a historical or significant moment. (Smith and Watson, 2001, p.7) Smith and Watson write that primarily, writers of life narratives will draw on their personal experiences and memories of an event as the primary source. (Smith and Watson, 2001, p. 7) The issue that arises from this, is that memory is subjective. The accuracy of our own memories can be questioned, as memories themselves are our own interpretation of events occurring around us, and are not impartial or unbiased. Smith and Watson quote W.E.B. Du Bois as stating that:
‘Memory fails especially in small details, so that it becomes finally but a theory of my life, with much forgotten and misconceived, with valuable testimony but often less than absolutely true, despite my intention…” (Smith and Watson, 2001, p. 15
Here, Du Bois is saying that because the small details that have comprised his life have been forgotten, he has been left with an overall picture or notion of his life the way he has perceived it, rather than how it may be in actuality.
Margaretta Jolly writes that ‘Against the dissolution of time, memory asserts permanence and timeless essence. Many autobiographical narratives – factual and fictional – are exquisite exercises in recollection.’ (Jolly, 2001, p. 597) Whilst authors of life narratives may display ‘exquisite exercises in recollection’, whether or not these recollections are accurate is crucial in establishing the truth and credibility to a...

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