- Life Writing in the Long Run by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson
When and if the story of Anglophone studies of life writing from the 1950s to the early 2000s is written, Sidonie Smith (no relation) and Julia Watson's Life Writing in the Long Run will be an invaluable source document, not only because Smith and Watson have been important theorists in the field since the late 1980s, but also because they have been important influences on the development of its criticism and pedagogy. While a major focus of their scholarship has been women's autobiography, this selection of their work, spanning 1991 through 2016, amply demonstrates that they see "the autobiographical"—in many incarnations, in various media, in any part of the world—as their objects of study. Reflecting this broad scope, Life Writing in the Long Run selects a wide range of their coauthored work and single-author essays—from synoptic discussions of women's autobiography, its theory and criticism, to nineteenth-century American women's autobiography, to contemporary uses of personal narratives as witness and testimonio in human rights campaigns, to online and visual self-representations, to narratives of ethnicity and exile. More than any other scholar of autobiographical writing I know of, they have tried to make sense of seemingly all the manifestations of the autobiographical as practiced in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. They have been a powerful force in broadening our understanding of the autobiographical by showing its pervasiveness across media, cultures, and continents.
In the introduction, Smith and Watson describe the collection's connecting thread as a tracing of the shift in the early 2000s from the scholarly topic of "autobiography" to the more inclusive field of "life writing" in their own work and that of others. Their book documents this shift well. In the 1990s [End Page 455] they use various forms of the word "autobiography" and, prefiguring the shift, "autobiographical practices." In 2006, they use "life narration," and by 2014, "life writing" is firmly in place.
In my view, this shift came about for at least two reasons: 1) the awareness by many students of the autobiographical mode that the classificatory work of parsing genre distinctions among letters, diaries, journals, memoirs, and "autobiography proper" was garnering diminishing returns, suggesting that the genre problem it was trying to solve needed reconceptualization. That problem was that, while the canonical autobiographies most usually studied up to the 1980s were book-length, retrospective, chronological narratives of usually Anglophone males' self-formation and rise to successful adulthood on the model of the bildungsroman, other kinds of self-referential writing, often by women or other marginalized people, did not conform to that model and suffered thereby from second-class status. But since there was no umbrella term but "autobiography" for this non-conforming writing, the word had to serve to name many disparate kinds of writing, some so different from each other as to call into question the ability of the term to specify anything concretely. This semantic confusion bothered everyone in the field, since it led to endless terminological debates that seemed to go nowhere.
The other reason for this shift, I believe, was that online writing and visual media offered new forms of self-representation so far removed from traditional retrospective prose narrative autobiography as described by Philippe Lejeune's pacte that "autobiography" became a misnomer. If autobiography was what Lejeune said it was, how could it apply to such rapidly expanding and changing kinds of self-expression and self-representation? While "life writing" cannot adequately describe many visual autobiographical forms, it does create a large tent for verbal self-representations and obviates endless and often unrewarding discussions of the formal differences among the various kinds of autobiographical writing.
Using James Olney's constitutive terms for autobiography, "life writing" preserves bios (life) and graphe (writing) but discards autos (self). That may not be a great loss since the "self" component of "autobiography" only establishes a heuristic distinction between biography and autobiography, a distinction first...