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Memoir: An Introduction by G. Thomas Couser (review)

From: a/b: Auto/Biography Studies
Volume 28, Number 1, Summer 2013
pp. 167-170 | 10.1353/abs.2013.0002

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From one of the preeminent thinkers in the fields of autobiography studies and disability studies, G. Thomas Couser’s Memoir: An Introduction distills scholarship about the genre of memoir for a general readership and undergraduate students. Readers who expect new research in the field will not find it here; that said, Couser provides a comprehensive and thoughtful discussion about the genre, giving readers the kinds of explanations and theoretical foundations many might think the genre seems not to need but which, in fact, it does. In the process, Couser reminds his readers of what can be gained and, thereby, the concerns of reading memoir: the role of self-making through self-narration, the obligations memoirists have to both the historical record and the people portrayed within their narratives, and the ethics of reading—and of writing—memoir. He suggests that the stakes of understanding generic expectations are high because, he writes, especially in life writing, “genre is not about mere literary form; it’s about force—what a narrative’s purpose is, what impact it seeks to have on the world” (9; emphasis added). In Memoir: An Introduction, Couser’s claims that knowledge about the various forms memoir might take, and why memoir is the dominant term for literary life writing, compel the reader to think in more considered ways about a genre that is much maligned in contemporary parlance. In fact, Couser takes care to establish some of the reasons why a genre-based analysis is significant and useful in a moment in which categorizing works may seem to be beside the point and could have the potential to marginalize particular iterations of self-narration.

Underscoring his dedication to informing a general audience, the chapters in Memoir work to provide readers with scaffolding that funnels them through Couser’s analyses of the genre in a prose style that is accessible and straightforward. He begins with an introduction that explains why a book on the genre of memoir might be useful, situating his readers explicitly at the time of its writing, in 2010. Using excerpts from literary novels, Couser also demonstrates the ways in which memoir has permeated the publishing world more largely; quoting from Laura Lippman’s novel Life Sentences (2009), he provides a couple of scenes that perform some of the issues that he illuminates more completely in subsequent chapters. For example, to introduce the complicated subject of the ethics of writing about one’s childhood friends and acquaintances, he notes that Lippman’s protagonist, an author who had written several memoirs by the time the action of the novel takes place, must negotiate some of her friends who resented their portrayal in her previous memoirs. Likewise, Couser tangles with the notion that publishers and readers prefer to read memoir rather than novels through Lippman’s protagonist’s decision to write memoir rather than fiction. Such distinction leads into Couser’s first chapter, “What Memoir Is, and What It Is Not.” Here, Couser focuses his attention on distinguishing memoir from fiction, and thereby from the novel. Providing provocative examples, including the James Frey episode and the propensity for students— and other readers, by extension—consistently to refer to memoirs as novels in their discussions of the works, Couser centers on relational narratives, the way that an umbrella term like “life writing” is understood outside the academy (his experience: it’s not), and the particularities of self-expression and self-representation in culture-bound societies. He continues his discussion of such idiosyncrasies in the second chapter, titled “Memoir and Genre,” in which he details the proliferation of potential names that scholars have proposed to negotiate kinds of autobiographical texts and thereby performs the reasons why genre matters.

Subsequent chapters engage the various forms of memoir, contemporary memoir, the ethics of memoir, its “American Roots,” and the genre’s work. In each of these, Couser takes great pains to provide his readers with appropriate sources—both primary texts that perform the thing he theorizes and secondary sources that would help them investigate the particular element in more detail—which is a useful feature of such a book and will give even the most well-versed life writing scholars new primary...

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