- Introduction: Life Writing and Light Writing; Autobiography and Photography
It may be averred that, of all the surfaces a few inches square the sun looks upon, none offers more difficulty, artistically speaking, to the photographer, than a smooth, blooming, clean washed, and carefully combed human head.—Lady Elizabeth Eastlake, 1857
Images do not make up a life story; nor do events. It is the narrative illusion, the biographical work, that creates the life story.—André Malraux, Lazarus
For regular readers of Modern Fiction Studies wondering why a journal whose middle name is “fiction” would publish a special issue on autobiography, especially when coupled with photography, I begin with a brief rehearsal of the recent history of autobiography theory. Although autobiography was once thought of as nonfiction, a subgenre of biography—and is still often classified under biography in libraries, book stores, and catalogues—in recent years scholars working with the genre have almost [End Page 459] universally come to the realization that whatever else it is, autobiography is not nonfiction.
Beginning with Paul John Eakin’s now standard Fictions in Autobiography, which argued that “the self that is the center of all autobiographical narrative is necessarily a fictive structure” (3) and that “fictions and the fiction-making process are a central constituent of the truth of any life as it is lived and of any art devoted to the presentation of that life” (5), most scholars have come to agree that the presence of fiction within autobiography is no more problematic than the presence of nonfiction within the novel. Focussing more on the autobiographical act, including its fictive impulse, than on the historicity of the text, theorists have in recent years given their books on the genre such titles and subtitles as Fabricating Lives (Leibowitz), Inventing the Truth (Zinsser), Figures in Autobiography (Fleishman), Constructions of Self-Representation (Folkenflik), Rewriting the Self (Freeman), Metaphors of Self (Olney), Marginality and the Fictions Of Self-Representation (Smith), and Imagining a Self (Spacks).
The argument would seem to be over. However, at the same time that the fictiveness of autobiography became a given, the forms in which autobiography manifested itself started to expand, taking in a number of related subgenres usually thought of as undeniably nonfiction; in addition to biography, memoir, and diary, literary scholars began to consider journal, letters, personal literary criticism, confession, oral history, daybook, documentary, travel writing, testimonio, film and television auto/biographies, as-told-to autobiography, as well as poetry. To make clear that the study of autobiographical texts includes all of these types, many scholars now use the term “lifewriting” when they refer to personal narratives in general, despite the fact that lifewriting is just English for biography.
Substituting “lifewriting” for “autobiography” does not really solve the fiction/nonfiction question because, as numerous writers have noted, life is not necessarily nonfiction either. Avrom Fleishman’s assertion that “Life—indeed the idea of a life—is already structured as a narrative” (478), is echoed by Oliver Sacks: “It might be said that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative,’ and that this narrative is us, our identities . . . for each of us is a biography, a story” (105). Back in 1964 Alfred Kazin, struggling with the increasing instability of the genre, used the term “autobiography as narrative” to describe books like Frank Conroy’s Stop-time or Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, while many autobiography theorists since have avoided the fiction/nonfiction issue altogether by arguing, [End Page 460] as Elizabeth Bruss did, that autobiography is “an act rather than a form” (19) or by agreeing with Paul de Man’s declaration that autobiography is not so much a genre as “a figure of reading or of understanding that occurs, to some degree, in all texts” (921). In his Postmodernist Fiction, Brian McHale argued that in comparing autobiography and fiction, “Fiction is fatally compromised; it is the autobiographical fiction, not the ‘straight’ autobiography, that seems redundant here” (203). Autobiography’s separation from nonfiction can be seen in a number of indices, perhaps most symbolically in the creation of the MLA’s Autobiography, Biography and Life Writing Division as a unit distinct from the Nonfiction Prose Division...