- Life Writing: Autobiography, Biography, and Travel Writing in Contemporary Literature
Life Writing is a collection of twenty-three essays originally presented at a 2006 symposium in Istanbul hosted by the Department of American Culture and [End Page 475] Literature of Haliç University. Like many such collections, the essays vary greatly in terms of their success and relevance to the topic of life writing; they also tend to be more descriptive than one might like. However, a few essays represent significant contributions to the field, while several more suggest promising directions for future work.
The operative definition of "life writing" here unites two narrative genres that are more commonly discussed separately: travel writing and auto/biography. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Manfred Pfister's "Travellers and Traces: The Quest for One's Self in Eighteenth- to Twentieth-Century Travel Writing" was chosen to head the collection. Pfister underscores the idea that traveling involves the search for and leaving of traces, traces which he assigns to one of four categories: material, textual, mnemonic, and iconic or performative. The essay thus offers a theory of travel writing that specifically emphasizes its location within the larger field of life writing.
A number of essays highlight the tactical aspects of life writing and its problematic reception as truth. In "Telling Life Stories: The Rhetorical Form of Biographical Narratives," Gerald Mulderig makes the important if not necessarily original point that success in biography is a consequence of the believability, rather than the truth, of its claims. Perhaps the most provocative essay in the collection, "Say It Isn't So: Autobiographical Hoaxes and the Ethics of Life Narrative" by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, draws out the implications of the fascination with and malleability of autobiographical truth in various contexts, from spam email scams to ethnic memoir. As its authors suggest, if "hoaxes expose what can be 'sold' as truth at a particular historical moment, in a specific cultural context," the study of hoaxes has the potential of opening up new perspectives on a variety of reading practices, literary and otherwise (31).
While some might regard the "hoaxes" analyzed by Smith and Watson as of a different order, savvy writers have long seen the benefits of opting for self-interest over truth. In separate essays, Laurence Raw and Richard Larschan offer similar arguments about Henry James's Autobiography and Sylvia Plath's autobiographical essays, "Ocean 1212W" and "America! America!" Raw and Larschan suggest that James and Plath, respectively, recognized the possibility of using autobiographical writing to shape the reception of their work. Özlem Öğüt approaches this situation from the opposite direction, reading a novel against the life of its author. Öğüt draws attention to the various ways in which Alev Tekinay plays with common assumptions about the autobiographical underpinnings of fiction in Nur der Hauch vom Paradies.
Writing-as-healing is another popular subject. Speaking from her experience with trauma and illness narratives in the classroom, Wendy Ryden underscores the distinction between private writing and public writing. Rather [End Page 476] than offering specific answers, Ryden's essay poses a series of questions about the implications of research (such as that of James Pennebaker) that suggests that the healing benefits of writing can be realized without the participation of an audience. The essays by G. Thomas Couser and Clare Brandabur share this interest in the benefits of life writing for the writer, though they are less invested in theory than Ryden's piece. Couser offers an overview of his academic work on "filial narrative" (life writing done by an adult child that involves the life of a parent) as well as his own experience composing a filial narrative. Couser calls for more work on the ways in which a writer might not only represent but come to know his or her subject. Brandabur's essay on Jean Genet's autobiographical Un captif amoureux (Prisoner of Love) describes this enigmatic late work as the realization of the writer's "life...