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

Reviewed by:
  • Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, and: Memoir: An Introduction
  • Margaretta Jolly (bio)
Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson. Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives. 2nd ed. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 2010. 392 pp. ISBN 978-0816669868, $19.50.
G. Thomas Couser. Memoir: An Introduction. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. 216 pp. ISBN 978-0199826926, $18.95.

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson are the unstoppable creators and charters of life writing criticism, and their second edition of Reading Autobiographyis the guide of guides. This journal’s review of the first edition of Reading Autobiographyby Richard Freadman (2001) concluded that “this is the challenging introductory book the field has been waiting for.” The second edition is twice as good. A monumental Astraddles the chic black cover, and reflects a monumental breadth and depth inside as well. The book is cleverly organized for a beginner’s tastes, with a short opening section defining the field’s central terms of autobiography, memoir, biography, and the more inclusive “life writing” and “life narrative,” before laying out six concepts the authors consider define the processes of autobiographical subjectivity. These are memory, experience, identity, space, embodiment, and agency, and in the chapter “Autobiographical Subjects,” the authors disaggregate these concepts to show how complicated the autobiographical performance can be. Space, for example, can mean Esmeralda Santiago’s interrogation of the watery borderlands in her growing up tale When I was Puerto Rican,Virginia Woolf ’s memory of a pre-egoic sensation of grape-colored light, or Montaigne’s arrièreboutique,the backroom of his mind.

In the next chapter, “Autobiographical Acts,” Smith and Watson survey the wide range of potential reasons that a life story may be coaxed or even coerced out, from job-seeking to therapy. Helpfully using the narratological distinction between the narrating and narrated self, they leave us in no doubt that the “I” of autobiography is a multiple production, not only literally through publishers and paratextual editors, but more subtly, in the form of ideological or psychological alter-egos. [End Page 817]

They then offer a history of life narrative, including a new chapter on its proliferating forms “in the wake of the memoir boom.” This tours us through the rise of human rights-based testimony and postcolonial bildungsroman to narratives of mourning, illness, addiction, disabled and queered coming out stories, age autobiography, post-ethnic family quests, and celebrity memoirs. Of “new-model narratives of displacement, migration and exile,” the authors observe that contemporary readers seek cohesion in an outpouring of family quest stories, ranging from Barack Obama’s post-ethnic dreams of a lost father to the Australian film Rabbit Proof Fence,in which three indigenous girls struggle to return to their community. A brief section on gastrography (personalized recipe books) ends with one of the authors’ flashes of imagination, as they wonder whether the subjectivity of another can be “cooked up,” reproduced, and tasted.

Smith and Watson’s other key addition to the first edition is a chapter on “the visual-verbal-virtual contexts of life narrative.” These include graphic memoir (from Mausto Persopolis), performance and the visual arts (Emin, Sherman, Hatoum, Ligon, Kentridge), autobiographical film and video, (Herzog, Apted, Chiten, Tajiri, Schnabel), and online lives. This introduced at least me to Tumblelogs, a practice which adds to the welter of possibilities for digital self-invention by inviting people to express themselves through digitally bricolaged images, icons, and texts from other people’s sites—I note that Wikipedia describes them as a “quick and dirty stream of consciousness” or early “microblog.” This, to my mind, appeals to Smith and Watson’s interests in how media can disperse rather than solidify the self. They end the chapter, however, by admitting that the growing digital archive of everyday life may eventually prove to be a comforting record of the more interiorized selves we may previously have been.

Two chapters on the history of life writing criticism follow, before we come to a distinctive “tool kit” comprising “twenty-four strategies for reading life narratives,” which proved a lively talking point for the first edition, and then three appendices: “sixty genres of life narrative,” group...