Saturday, 9 May 2009

On a memoir, or is it?

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'.

13 comments:

Annie said...

Dear Professor, just yesterday I was reading Your prologue (the sample chapter) to "Just a Phrase..." and listening (for over ten times) to the trailers of lectures! I am impatient to swallow in what I imagine to be a vasty field of fascinating unparalleled lines sealed throughout the whole of Your autobiographical memoir.
I can only add You are the applause, delight, the wonder of our age to whom all language nuts and bolts do their honourable treatment owe. And I congratulate You on the 50 years of linguistically fruitful and fruitifying life !!!

Fran Hill said...

I didn't know about this book. Looking forward very much to getting hold of a copy. I'll get one for my 17 year old cousin, too, who got your autograph on his library ticket when we came to hear you at Warwick Library last year and who refuses to give me back the copy of your Encyclopaedia of the English Language which I lent him for a short time only ...

DC said...

Sorry about that!

I hope Warwick Books continue to prosper. Lovely bookshop.

literalminded said...

I've already ordered my copy, but I've been informed that the release date is now June 30.

DC said...

Ah yes, there's often a month or so's delay between UK and US publication. I've never understood why! It seems pointless in an age when you can get a book on amazon.co.uk but not on amazon.com.

The Ridger, FCD said...

It's totally pointless, and that's the reason Scholastic stopped doing it with Harry Potter - they got hammered in sales lost.

Too bad more American publishers haven't noticed. (And actually, I think Scholastic still delays most books...)

Frederic Kolman said...

I found your definitional analysis very interesting in clarifying the distinction between the two types of writing. When we read a "biography" of a famous person, we are looking for key facts about that peron's life, written in chronological order. Such a text is written by another person, based on much research. In an autobiography, we are adding the prefix "auto-" and so the person himself is doing the required research to piece the book together. "Memoir," interestingly is drawn from the word to remember. I believe they call it a cognate. So, in a memoir, the person is remembering significant times, occurrences, and turning points in his life. Memories are also endowed by the person with certain emotional coloring, and that's the flavor we are often looking for in reading a memoir as well. The foregoing comports with Professor Crystal's analysis. I'm glad an analysis of the morphemes is helpful here, too.

Cecily said...

"autobiography" is also commonly misused for what is actually a ghost-written authorised biography.

Even the fans of Victoria Beckham, Jordan(insert name of your least favourite celebrity) probably don't believe they wrote the bulk of their autobiographies, so why label it as such?

Sarah said...

There is a new genre (or a new definition for an existing genre, if you prefer) which is "Creative Non-fiction". City University London offers a Masters in it. It includes Biography, Travel and History... so perhaps your work would fit under that category.

I'd hate to overgeneralise here, but the "Creative" bit could be read cynically to mean "an autobiography with made-up facts" as in "A Million Little Pieces" and others of that kind...

DC said...

Interesting. It would certainly include my linguistic travelogue By Hook or By Crook as well, but not, for example, my Stories of English. Sounds like a fruitful notion.

literalminded said...

Aha! I've now ordered my copy via Amazon.co.uk, and canceled my order with Routledge. Thanks!

In the meantime, could you tell me if Just a Phrase... has an index and/or glossary?

DC said...

Yes, there is a full index.

No, there isn't a glossary. I didn't want the book looking like a textbook. I don't see the need, actually. There's very little serious terminology in it, and I explain a lot as I go along. Anyone with a basic awareness of language shouldn't have any problem with it.

mijdge said...

Autobiography seems mechanical and analytical, whereas memoirs hints at being more personal and less directive.