What is life-writing?

March 04, 2020

It’s a genre categorisation that you’ll find here at Destination Books, but what exactly is life-writing?

Life-writing is ordinarily an academic term but it can be useful for general readers too. It’s an umbrella term for non-fiction genres in which authors write about lives: either their own or others’. You’re probably familiar with memoir/autobiography (the author’s own life story) and biography (the author researches and writes about somebody else’s life) but we tend to limit these genres to novel length books, excluding shorter forms of writing about life such as personal essays, graphic memoirs, letters, diaries and journals.

Life-writing, then, captures all autobiographical and biographical written forms. In contemporary culture, as technology and social media shift methods of writing about our lives, mediums such as blogs and tweets could be considered as life-writing too.

But why use the term life-writing in place of auto/biography?*

*(auto/biography is used herein to signify both autobiography and biography)

  • There are tens and tens of ‘sub-genres’ of auto/biography; autobiography scholars Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson composed a glossary of 60 genres and it was not an exhaustive list![1] Some ‘sub-genres’ or ‘modes’ of life-writing might not neatly fit into the genre of auto/biography. For example, autoethnography is a mode in which the author reflects on their own experiences and identity in order to tell the collective story of the wider culture they are researching. Though autoethnography includes the ‘auto’ – the self – it doesn’t tell the singular life story we usually expect to find in autobiography. It defies the genre of biography too, as although it focuses outwards, on others, autoethnography is based on a culture or community rather than the individual life of the biographical subject. Life-writing becomes a useful term to categorise complex sub-genres such as autoethnography. 

  • Life-writing embraces experimental and hybrid forms. Ever noticed book blurbs that struggle to define a text, using terms like ‘part-memoir, part-something-else’, or ‘autobiography-of-sorts’? Life-writing helps us to categorise and talk about these exciting hybrid texts. Expect to find the most interesting ‘part autobiography, part x, part y’ books in the life-writing category here at Destination Books.

  • Reading texts as life-writing lets us think more creatively about how they engage with subjectivity, truth, disclosure and the writing process, free of constraining notions of what auto/biography is and should do. For example, autobiographers are generally expected to get as close to a 'truth' about their life as possible, but life-writing discards these types of expectation, allowing both writers and readers to play with notions of truth and representation.

  • Life-writing allows us to consider a larger body of an author’s work, giving us the language to compare various forms. Rather than looking exclusively at an author’s memoirs, we can simultaneously consider letters, personal essays and biographies within one frame of reference.

Life-writing encapsulates the 'real life' stories we're familiar with and exciting new forms of life narrative. This high-level introduction to life-writing hopes to excite you about the range of forms you can expect to discover at Destination Books under the term ‘life-writing’. To whet your appetite, here are 3 books that defy conventional autobiography/biography and are more suited to the term 'life-writing'.

Serpent’s Tail, 2016

Originally published in 1997, I Love Dick gave rise to interest in ‘autofiction’: a blurring of autobiography and fiction. The book also uses the letter form as the protagonist, Chris Kraus, and her husband intensely write over 200 pages of letters to Chris’s crush (a man called Dick), making for an even more interesting and multifarious example of life-writing.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, publication set for 1 May 2020

All Boys Aren’t Blue adopts the personal essay form and is a self-proclaimed memoir-manifesto from LGBTQIA+ activist and journalist, George M. Johnson, on growing up as a Black queer boy in the US. A young adult book but with genre hybridity and explorations of identity, masculinity, consent and marginalisation, it’s a promising book for life-writing fans to look out for.

Simon & Schuster, 2015

You’re likely to find this book in the non-fiction or natural history sections of a bookstore and it’s certainly educational on the topic of octopuses (not octopi, as Montgomery clarifies in the book). However, we could class this book as life-writing as Montgomery communicates her research through her personal experience of researching and building relationships with acquariuam octopuses. Arguably, this is a (non-human) biography too; of  Athena, Octavia and Kali: the three octopuses we come to love.

Look out for more posts on life-writing and some of the sub-genres it encapsulates. Subscribe or join the mailing list to be notified of new life-writing posts. 

[1] Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, ‘Appendix A: Sixty Genres of Life Narrative’, in Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives, ed. by Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis Press, 2010) 53-186

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