- The Phenomenology of Autobiography: Making it Real by Arnaud Schmitt
Routledge, 2017, 178 pp. ISBN 978-1138710290, $155.00 hardcover.
Telling our lives and listening to the accounts of others is a human yearning played out in everyday social interactions. We are intrigued by other people's experiences (whether we know them or not), and find ourselves easily engrossed in their narrative self-expressions. In autobiography studies we have long analyzed how authors tell their lives in narrative form and grappled with theories of genre, truth-telling, fictionality, experience, identity, memory, and representation in the process. In The Phenomenology of Autobiography: Making it Real, Arnaud Schmitt challenges us to set aside our theories of autobiography for a moment to return to the actual experience of reading life narratives. Phenomenology attempts to get to the heart of concrete, lived human experiences in order to explain phenomena from within (as meaningfully encountered) rather than from without (as imposed by culture, religion, science, tradition, theory, etc.) (Moran 4–6). Centering on the reader's experience of autobiography, Schmitt's text encourages us to reconsider how we receive and evaluate autobiographical accounts.
In his first chapter, "The G Word and the H Word," Schmitt reflects on the referential genre of autobiography from the perspective of the reader in contrast to those of postmodern theorists and experimental writers. At the heart of autobiography is a commitment to tell the "truth" or "reality" of one's life, a commitment that separates it from fiction. Yet autobiographies are characterized by dilemmas of truth-telling due to the subjectivity of the author's experience, the fallibility of memory, and the conventions of narrative shaping. Schmitt takes up this fact/fiction dilemma in autobiography by examining hybrid accounts or "ambiguous autobiographies" that blur the boundaries between what is real and what is fictional. Schmitt observes that "the past decades have offered several theoretical solutions to the age-old conundrum of trying to decide if ambiguous autobiographies should be treated as fiction or as facts (or as both)" (30). He is [End Page 451] inclined to treat them as both (or hybrid) and examines the genre of "autofiction" in this regard. In particular, he analyzes two works by David Shields—Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010) and How Literature Saved My Life (2013)—located on the extreme edge of autofiction. In Reality Hunger, Shields attempts to do away with the plaguing question of genre altogether by embracing hybridity wholesale, extinguishing distinctions between fiction and nonfiction. Rather than waste time trying to unravel facts from fiction, Shields promotes a "post-genre" approach, which he attempts in How Literature Saved My Life. Schmitt challenges the possibility of "post-genre" writing, arguing that we cannot escape generic frameworks, even if we rename them, oppose them, or break their rules (as Shields does). In fact, as readers we need genres. They remain useful constructs to help us make sense of a text and take pleasure in it. To deal with the fact/fiction conundrum, Schmitt suggests that we distinguish between the substance and the structure of narrative accounts with the language of "modality" rather than "genre." Since fiction and autobiography share the same means of expression but have different purposes (43), they could be considered different narrative modalities. Autobiography can thus maintain its substance as referential writing—narrating real lives in the real world—while functioning within the structures of literary expression.
In his second chapter, "The Modality of the 'I' (Part 1)," Schmitt turns to questions of narrative identity that confront readers of autobiography: "What is the genre of the 'I'?" and "What does it mean to read an 'I'?" (49). In grappling with these questions, he proposes an alternative theoretical lens—that of cognitive poetics—to approach the experience of reading another's "I," particularly with regard to the fact/fiction conundrum. Cognitive poetics analyzes the mental activity of characters and of readers, and considers narration as a mode of thinking (51). Schmitt focuses specifically on the mental activity of readers encountering an autobiographical "I" in order to suggest that they do not experience fact/fiction hybrids in reading...