- The Fiction of Autobiography: Reading and Writing Identity by Micaela Maftei
Micaela Maftei’s introduction explains that The Fiction of Autobiography began as a search for an interpretive framework within which to understand the interplay of truthfulness and fictionalizing in memoir. Writing stories of her family, Maftei found herself confronted by the dilemmas of many a memoirist: Whose version of past events is the “right” one? How much latitude can we take in crafting ourselves in print? What is our responsibility to the others we write about? Can we be honest autobiographers without strictly adhering to documented facts? Realizing that her intuitive answers to such questions entailed thinking of the autobiographical subject as fragmented, and of autobiographical truth as a variable, unstable feature of the genre, Maftei turned to contemporary life writing for further evidence of her suspicion that [End Page 814] autobiography is not a “re-writing of an already completed process” but always and inevitably “a new and independent narrative” (3).
To writers, readers, and scholars of autobiography and creative nonfiction, the question of whether or not we can “divorce autobiographical writing from traditional fiction/nonfiction categorization by understanding it as a totally new creation that relies on the past but is not bound by it” (10) may be the most useful one this book poses. Weary of continued debate about nonfiction’s relationship to the genre it is defined against, one might appreciate Maftei’s formulation here. Rather than asking if fictive elements inhere in autobiography, Maftei takes as her premise the belief that they do; far from worrying over the consequences of such elements for autobiography’s veracity, she assumes that truth can be found in the temporal slippage, imprecise remembering, and disunified subjectivity of all autobiographical work. The result is refreshing in its emphasis on memoir as a “new product” (11) that creates selves and histories even as its raw material is somehow rooted in what has already been.
In this very insistence, however, lies the limitation of The Fiction of Autobiography, because the book seems to be engaged in proving the legitimacy of claims that are no longer new or remarkable. This is perhaps a matter of audience. For students or young writers unfamiliar with the thrust of the field, statements about perceptual ambiguity or “multiple versions of an event” (21)—which Maftei herself acknowledges as “self-evident” (17)—might be provocatively liberating. Still, many of her conclusions seem overly obvious and unnuanced for a just-published scholarly treatise on the fracturings of identity in memoir. That memory is a narrative process, actively writing experiences in the present rather than calling up fixed events from the past; that the passage of time creates an incoherence rather than a continuity of selves; that the writing self is not the same being as the artistic “I” who speaks memoir—these are well-established concepts in the study of life writing, ones that no longer seem to require detailed verification.
The Fiction of Autobiography thus does not do enough to make more exciting use of its material or to press its analyses into less well-trod territory. I was disheartened, for example, to discover that the book opens with discussion of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces and I, Rigoberta Menchú by Rigoberta Menchú—texts that have been thoroughly examined for the controversies around truthfulness they each have stimulated. Maftei may be right to put pressure on the peculiarly moralized outrage that greeted such apparent betrayals of the autobiographical pact as these works. But her tendency to conflate terms—to suggest, for instance, that because testimony makes no claim to an exclusive story, it therefore also “does not matter” (34) if an “I” claims first-person access to events she or he did not in fact witness—struck me as a kind [End Page 815] of glib insistence on multiplicity for the sake of it. At the same time, I’d also suggest that even if readers fundamentally accept the idea that memoir should hew closely to...