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Self Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, & the Forms of Modern Literature (review)

From: James Joyce Quarterly
Volume 48, Number 1, Fall 2010
pp. 191-196 | 10.1353/jjq.2010.0046

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

This book is gigantic, of encyclopedic scope, and Max Saunders, the King’s College London co-director of the Centre for Life-Writing Research, must have read and synthesized more theory about life-writing—and more primary texts—than anyone else. One would expect that this tome, over five hundred pages and offered to the profession by Oxford University Press, would be the definitive word on the genres of biography and autobiography. And it seems that Saunders himself sets out to tackle that job. He begins and ends with theoretical chapters, using “[o]ur postmodern ways of thinking” about genre (5). Unfortunately and perhaps as a consequence of this theoretical vantage, assertions of any sort—especially the kind that divide one class of books from another—give Saunders the hives. As his discussions of recent critics indicate, that allergic reaction is epidemic.

It cripples anyone proposing to define genres. I will quote one paragraph at length to illustrate what I mean:

Just as the postmodern view of biography and autobiography is that they cannot be kept entirely separate from each other, and that the term “auto/biography” can condense their interrelations, so two further terms have begun to gain currency recently to indicate that auto/biography itself cannot be kept entirely apart from fiction; that . . . autobiography . . . shares its narrative features with fictional narratives. These terms, “autobiografiction” and “autofiction,” are comparably double-jointed, indicating both that auto/biography can be read as fiction, and that fiction can be read as auto/biographical.

“Autobiografiction,” the term used here . . . seems to require the invention of biografiction to accompany it, and, alas, auto/biografiction, for the sake of exhaustiveness as well as symmetry.

(6–7)

This is typical of Saunders’s method. No category ever holds still long enough to be really described; they are always transforming, always leaking into each other, never distinct enough to say anything concrete about them.

If we are to imagine genres as nations, which Saunders, like so many before him, invites us to do when he employs the metaphor of “generic borders” (5), it is easy to see the problem. It is one thing to say that on the frontier it is difficult to tell which country you are in. The boundaries between Germany and France may blur; the folks who live on either side of the line might resemble each other more than they resemble their respective countrymen in the distant capitals. One might even suggest that the confusion of the frontier extends further towards the interior than we usually realize. But it is quite another thing to say that when you are in the heart of France, you might as well be in the heart of Germany because there is no reliable way to distinguish the people of one from the other: they speak the same language, eat the same cuisine, play the same sports. If that were the case, one must not only blur boundaries but erase nations. The notion of “borders,” which we all admit are artificially constructed, loses all utility. By “utility,” I mean the mundane—such as on which shelf to put the book at Barnes and Noble—which is, to my mind, actually an important judgment for us to make. You must not mistake the French cookbook for the German when you are having friends over for dinner.

But Saunders does not take the radical step. He will not erase the countries. He smudges the borders, declares nothing distinguishes the French from the Germans, and yet insists on retaining the concepts of France and Germany. Autobiography and biography are indistinguishable (hence auto/biography). Auto/biography and fiction are indistinguishable, hence “autobiografiction.” His book relies upon the presumption that we can discuss categories as if they have some basis in reality, but Saunders never speaks of those categories with any confidence, never defines them with the kind of precision that would make them useful to us.

“[M]odernism is transformed by its engagement with life-writing,” Saunders writes (14). Transformed from what to what? is the logical question triggered by that statement—but Saunders does not say. “[T]he categories of autobiography and fiction are transformed by their engagement with ‘autobiografiction,’” which...


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