A correspondent writes to say he is a tad confused about my latest book Just a Phrase I'm Going Through: My Life in Language, which came out this week. He has seen it referred to as an 'autobiography' and as a 'memoir', and wonders which it is.
The two labels are certainly difficult to distinguish these days. Traditionally, a memoir is a subgenre of autobiography, in that it is much less chronological and comprehensive. It is a narrative about a part of a life, usually focusing on the writer's involvement in external events (as when a general writes a memoir of a military campaign). Its main purpose is to describe the events and to 'take a view' of them. So memoirs deal more with public matters than private ones. Typically, the writers tell us a lot about other people, and little about themselves. If it is self-directed, then it is about their career rather than their private life, though that distinction breaks down when the writer is a celebrity, and certainly some memoirs are highly personal and subjective - as in the case of Gore Vidal's Palimpsest. This he describes as a memoir, and suggests the difference with autobiography to be as follows: 'A memoir is how one remembers one’s own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked'.
Personally I find that distinction much too sharp. An alternative is William Zinsser's comment, in his Inventing the Truth: the Art and Craft of Memoir: 'Unlike autobiography, which moves in a dutiful line from birth to fame, memoir narrows the lens, focusing on a time in the writer’s life that was unusually vivid, such as childhood or adolescence, or that was framed by war or travel or public service or some other special circumstance.' 'Narrowing the lens' is a more relevant criterion, to my mind.
Just a Phrase, on these accounts, is neither one thing nor t'other. It is somewhere in between. It is a memoir, in that it has certainly 'narrowed the lens'. This is the story only of my life 'in language'. You will not find in here an account of my politics, or whether I like broccoli, or all the other bits and pieces that make up a life, except insofar as these arise in relation to my work as a linguist. On the other hand, it is definitely chronological, from - as Shakespeare put it in his 'seven ages of man' - infant to pantaloon. And it is full of the dates and double-checking that Vidal wants to see.
The public and the private life interact in all kinds of unpredictable ways - in my case, strikingly so, as it is only through linguistics that I ever found my father. Such interactions blur the traditional genre distinction and demand a new label. So I opt for 'autobiographical memoir'.