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When Memory Speaks Reflections on Autobiography
ISBN 0679445935 / 9780679445937 / 0-679-44593-5Find This Book
"Why," asks Jill Ker Conway, "is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?" As the author of two stellar memoirs--The Road from Coorain and True North--Conway would seem superbly qualified to answer her own question. Her initial premise is that naturalistic fiction has lost much of its power to enchant, that the cynical readers of our fin de siecle are unwilling to suspend their disbelief for a run-of-the-mill storyteller. Only the memoirist's factual frolics can truly engage us and satisfy our craving to be "allowed inside the experience of another person who really lived and who tells about experiences which did in fact occur."
This clear-cut distinction between the two forms is, of course, highly dubious, and Conway is quick to acknowledge the rather porous nature of autobiographical "truth." In fact, she argues, all memoirs tend to conform to certain narrative patterns. What's more, Conway classifies these patterns along gender lines: men produce epic adventures, in which the testosterone-driven protagonist battles against nature and society for control of his fate, while women are quicker to record the trials of domestic life and evolving consciousness. Conway draws on the entire history of autobiography for her discussion, from Saint Augustine and Germaine Greer to Vanessa Bell and Frank McCourt. (But what happened to Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, a title Conway echoes in her own?) At times her subjects stubbornly refuse to conform to the appropriate, his-and-hers pattern--suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst's My Own Story, for example, has the manly sound of "a series of communiques from a general in the field." Yet Conway's trawl through the history of the genre is full of brilliant insights as well as less known autobiographical gems, and no memoir-mad reader will want to miss it. [via]