Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 24, 2018

Autobiography, a Very Short Introduction (2016), by Laura Marcus

Life Writing is incredibly popular these days, and it came as no surprise to me to learn from This Very Short Introduction to Autobiography that Michel Foucault thinks that we have become ‘confessing animals’. The plethora of memoirs, autobiographies and ‘true confessions’ today seems to be evidence of a compulsion to record the complexities of human life, experience and memory, though it has to be said that some life writing seems of more lasting value than others.  Autobiography, a Very Short Introduction by Laura Marcus, a Professor at Oxford, is a fascinating exploration of this kind of writing, starting with the Confessions of St Augustine in the 4th century, through to its modern manifestations in multimedia, autobiographical novels and autofiction.

After the Introduction, there are eight chapters in this VSI (as well as the usual references, suggestions for further reading, and an index).

  1. Confession, conversion, testimony
  2. The journeying self
  3. Autobiographical consciousness
  4. Autobiography and psychoanalysis
  5. Family histories and the autobiography of childhood
  6. Public selves
  7. Self-portraiture, photography, and performance
  8. Autobiographies, autobiographical novels, and autofictions.

Beginning in chapter one, Marcus discusses the important question of what motivates the writer of autobiography:

Numerous writers of autobiography, from across the centuries, have offered their own understandings of the motives for autobiography, its possible forms, and its intended readerships. Prefaces, or opening statements, frequently anticipate the charges of vanity, egotism, self-distortion (or self-promotion), and narcissism that might be levelled against the author who talks about him or herself, answering them in advance by suggesting more edifying or altruistic autobiographical motives.  Some writers of autobiography will suggest that they are on a quest for self-understanding, while others will stress their wish to communicate their experiences to others.  (p.5)

From a reader’s point-of-view, (or posterity’s) the value of a life-story depends on its representative or exemplary status.  Some writers (such as Harriet Martineau) feel a duty to tell the story of an unusual life, while others such as John Stuart Mill felt compelled to write about his life in an age of transition.   Gandhi apparently didn’t intend to write a real autobiography, but rather to redefine it by telling the story of [his] experiments with truth… and that, of course, brings up the whole question of veracity:

… any narrative of the self and its life-story will entail a reconstruction, subject to the vagaries of memory, which renders the division between autobiography and fiction far from absolute. (p.4)

Marcus suggests that the rise of memoir

…could in part be understood as a response to the problems of representing a whole life. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the distinction (at least in English-language contexts) was often drawn, or implied, between autobiography as a sustained and serious self-examination and memoir as a more outward-facing record of experiences and events.  (p,6)

This distinction, she says, has largely been lost in our own time, and the ‘celebrity autobiography’ is more often written when a career (or notoriety) is flourishing, rather than towards the end of a life.  And the religious confessions such as those of St Augustine (4th century); St Teresa of Avila (1555) or John Bunyan (1678) which record the spiritual conversion have been replaced by secular and emotional confessions about the creation of the self, as in Rousseau’s Confessions (1782).  What’s different in our time is that these ‘confessions’ are no longer originally a private or intimate act, and the idea of presenting a ‘model’ life or a good example to others was tested by Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis in which he accused Lord Alfred Douglas of ruining his life.  Closer to our own time, J.M. Coetzee’s trilogy of memoirs, Boyhood, Youth and Summertime distance his past selves through the 3rd person narration, and while Youth, Marcus says, has its own intense and ironic relationship to confession, shame and desire,

Summertime breaks with the narrative of the growing self: the (auto)biographical subject is a dead man.  A young English writer is writing a biography of the recently deceased John Coetzee and gathers materials from those, in particular his women lovers, who ‘knew’ him life; failures in intimacy and of knowing mark their recollections. (p.23)

A novel way to get round the problem that no autobiographer can write the whole life because it isn’t over yet!

In the same chapter, the question of testimony and trauma arises.  Discussing Frederick Douglass’s Twelve Years a Slave (see my review, in which, BTW, I classified it as a memoir), Marcus says that a number of former African-American slaves felt an obligation to write (or dictate) their testimonies because ‘testimony’ was legally denied to slaves and ‘coloured people’; they could not, in law, bring a while man to account for his actions nor testify against his word. Autobiography, in this context, is an assertion of identity and personhood.  Many war testimonies, such as Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and Primo Levi’s If This is a Man were written to bear witness too. For Levi, who survived the Holocaust…

‘the need to tell our story to ‘”the rest”, to make the “rest” participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse.’  The lesson he early learned from a fellow camp-inmate was that ‘even in this place one can survive, and therefore one must want to survive, to tell the story, to bear witness.’ (p.27)

Crucially, in Landscapes of the Metropolis of Death a Holocaust memoir by the historian Otto Dov Kulka, while drawings, maps and photographs are included, there are gaps in what is recalled.  In the present age, we recognise these gaps as authentic manifestations of trauma, and the ‘truth’ of the witnessing is not undermined but strengthened by the partial, fragmentary and times dream-like nature of its telling. 

Chapter 2 offers Thoreau’s Walden (1854) as the first of all those memoirs and nature and travel writings, while Walt Whitman’s poem ‘Song of Myself’ in Leaves of Grass (1855) is an unashamed expression of delight in his own human form and energies and in those of others. These romantics are contrasted in Chapter 3 with the autobiographies of philosophers for whom (as R.G. Collingwood apparently said in 1939, ‘the autobiography of a man whose business is thinking should be the story of his thought.’ This chapter is fascinating, focussing on the representations of memory, the self in and through time, concepts of subjectivity, identity, and consciousness, and self-formation or ‘becoming’ in the autobiographies of Descartes, Montaigne, Hume, Nietzsche, and the existentialists Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and (someone new to me) André Gorz.  Of these I’ve only read (some of) Simone de Beauvoir, but I have read Bertrand Russell’s three-volume autobiography and didn’t find it particularly illuminating so I noted with some satisfaction that Marcus says that he didn’t address the question of the self and *chuckle* his occasional mentions of it are distinctly cerebral. This chapter also raises the contested issue about whether or not lives should be conceived of as a narrative. 

[Do we think of our lives like that? I think of my life as more like a piece of crazy-paving… If I were to write an autobiography (and fear not, I have no intention of it), I would do what Roland Barthes and Michel Leiris apparently did (see Chapter 4, about psychoanalysis), and organise my life around themes.  Mine would be different to theirs (images, dreams and fantasies) but perhaps Mistakes, Wasted Opportunities and Failed Attempts at Elegance. And like Katherine Mansfield in her journal, I would struggle with the impossibility of observing the prescription ‘To thine own self be true’: True to oneself? which self?’  Remember the many selves of Lee Lin Chin and David Stratton?]

The chapter about family histories put me in my mind of a recent review at Whispering Gums, of Nadia Wheatley’s Her Mother’s Daughter. Sue called it a hybrid: where the biography is of the subject (mothers, in these cases) and the memoir is of the writer (the daughters.)  Giving as an example Gosse’s Father and Son (1907) Marcus calls this genre both and neither an autobiography of the son and a biography of the father, and she discusses how these works become part of the world of feeling and imagination which has been suppressed or denied.  And she cautions that:

It is, however, the world of imagination which may touch dangerously on the duplicitous story-making and self-mythologising that can destroy the self’s grounding in reality. (p.72)

[Yes, and there are ethical questions about those Hollywood tell-all hybrids when the parents are dead and gone and not there to defend themselves.]

Marcus also cautions against the ‘misery memoir’.  There’s a more elegant name for these: pathography, and she notes the role of the commercial structures of publishing which have promoted the literature of ‘the imperfect childhood’ as well as accurately describing my response to them: a certain contempt for, and perhaps exhaustion with, such writing. She names those high-profile exemplars A Child called ‘It’ and Angela’s Ashes and Jean Winterson.

The chapter about ‘public selves’ offered the most interesting examples of autobiography, ranging from Barack Obama’s Dreams From My Father to Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom.  I like this type of autobiography because it links to contemporary politics, activism and exemplary lives. But I skipped over most of the bit about ghost-writing and celebrity autobiographies…of people who are famous for being famous. 

The chapter exploring photography and the last one about modern manifestations of autobiography that blur fact and fiction are fascinating too, but I’d better stop here because this review is already too long.  Buy the book!

PS I should admit here that my record of reading at Goodreads shows that over a lifetime, I’ve only read 38 autobiographies, and, well, I haven’t rated many of them highly.  But I still have a few on my TBR and having read this excellent VSI, I shall approach the next one in a more informed way.

Author: Laura Marcus
Title: Autobiography, a Very Short Introduction
Series: Very Short Introductions (Oxford University Press)
Publisher: Oxford University Press,2016
ISBN: 9780199689255
Review copy courtesy of OUP.

Available from Fishpond: Goethe: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)


  1. Now, this is a VSI I’d love to read as life-writing fascinates me and, as you know, I always like to think about form. I read more of them than you do I think, but I tend to go for ones about topics of interest to me – hence the several WW2 hybrids I’ve read, ones by writers (like Nadia Wheatley) or other admired people (like Barack Obama.) When in doubt, I use the term memoir, because I do think that an autobiography can only be written near the end of life. There are people, though, who write their autobiographies in stages. I think we can tell which of these part-life ones are memoirs and which are autobiographies – but I’m sure there are some fine lines.

    BTW Your themes made me laugh: Mistakes, Wasted Opportunities and Failed Attempts at Elegance. I suspect you are being too modest though. I’ll have to think about mine …


    • I think I prefer biographies, and they’re best when the person is dead and can’t cast a dead weight over any awkward secrets:)
      Now that you are a grandma, you will have to write your memoirs, so yes, get to work on those themes. Mere chronology is boring…


      • Oh dear, I hadn’t thought about that – the grandma bit. Hmm …

        I think re biography and memoir/autobiography it depends, for me, on the subject and the writing. I see I’ve read more of the latter on my blog – but some of those are these hybrids that I’ve only classified as memoir, and some are short memoir type essays. And, I think, I’ve received more as review copies!


        • It’s literary bios that I like best of all, though I did like Craig Emerson’s Boy from Baradine.


          • Yes, me too – I was thinking about some of my favourite literary bios again today.


            • Ah, can I anticipate a Musings?


              • Haha, Lisa, I did do one about three years ago, so unfortunately that topics is gone though there could be another angle to consider some time,couldn’t there.


  2. I too smiled at Failed Attempts at Elegance. An interesting post. I suppose Wordsworth’s Prelude is a kind of autobiography; don’t know if it featured in this study.


    • #Musing… I toyed with calling it Bad Haircuts, for reasons you can see in my avatar…
      Yes, Wordsworth and his Prelude gets quite a mention, mainly in the chapter about the journeying self because of his wanderings in the Lake District.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Very interesting. Lisa – raises lots of discussion points – pity or maybe just as well – I’m retiring from teaching Life Stories!


    • I think the appeal for me is what she says about the pre-modern autobiography reflecting on a whole life. Somewhere, I forget which chapter, she talks about how some authors were prompted to get started by a sense of impending death, else when does one start? Should we reflect on a whole life in our 60s? 70s? 80s? If we leave it too late, we may be past it!
      But I like that classic idea of reflecting on a life, rather than just selective bits of it. It seems more honest to me, and yet I think it would be very difficult to do if there were a likelihood that others might read it. Would we write sincerely about our regrets or would we let them die with our demise?


      • I don’t think I agree that “the whole life”/autobiography is more honest. I think it can be. It could also be more boring. All life writing is necessarily selective, so any approach is going to leave some things out. You could argue that the memoir form might be more honest because, being more narrowly focused, it can delve into that aspect in more detail, leave less out and thus expose the subject/writer more? (You know, like a sample can stand for the whole!?) In the end, though, I think honesty is about what you choose to say and not say, not the form you write in?

        That said, in life writing, perhaps the most LIKELY to be honest are Diaries and Letters – they too are selective, particularly if the writer has a sense that others might read them, but the form suggests greater chance of honesty. Does the book touch on diaries and letters?


      • Agreed indeed that a whole life could be boring, I’ve read a couple!
        Maybe it’s just the memoirs that I’ve read, but it’s not a form I like much…I mean, I could write a completely truthful memoir of my career as a schoolteacher, and you wouldn’t recognise me. I have written a memoir of a particular time in The Spouse’s life, and none of our friends now would recognise him either.
        Yes, letters and journals are included. They are IMO are interesting, but not conclusive. With letters, there is always an audience, and the writer can never know with whom those letters will be shared. And we can lie or fail to mention things in letters to people far away – to conceal, or to protect them from unpleasant truths, or because the writer knows the reader wouldn’t be interested anyway. I don’t think that they – or journals – are any more likely to be the truth of a life, not even the bare bones of events, much less the writer’s analysis of how that life has been lived.
        I am beginning to think that we delude ourselves if we think that we can know a person from any kind of life writing.


  4. Such an interesting post, Lisa, and I might be tempted by this one. Very relevant, as you say, because as a race we seem to be compelled to confess everything to everyone left, right and centre over every platform available! And I was interested in what you said about writing your autobiograpical things by theme. I was struck when talking with my mother over the summer by the fact that I am the only person who now remembers a *lot* of stuff about our family and I need to write it down for posterity. My initial notes are definitely gathered around themes and I think I’ll find that format much more palatable and enjoyable than attempting a linear narrative! :)


    • Well, the point about themes is that they focus the attention on what’s important. For example, the actual date I arrived in Australia is of no importance whatsoever. Nor is the name of the ship I came on. But it was a defining event in my life, and as long as the date is approximate (1960s, not 1980s) that’s all that matters. I think my descendants would be much more interested in what I thought about it and why we came…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Watching my father do family trees, I suspect they would go to enormous lengths to name the ship.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Haha Bill, yes, exactly what I was going to say. I think you’d better have a time-line at the end of yours, Lisa, with all those boring “facts” so that your ancestors can confirm that you are Lisa Hill they are looking for not some other one!!


          • What makes you think I care about descendants knowing about me? I don’t feel a shred of responsibility in that direction. If they have an obsession with family history, it won’t be from any genes of mine:)

            Liked by 1 person

            • I was teasing you actually as I didn’t imagine you would care! I had decided not to comment but couldn’t resist joining in to support Bil.😄

              Liked by 1 person

  5. Reblogged this on penwithlit and commented:
    Very interesting and most useful!


  6. My favourite ‘autobiographies’ are definitely fictional – Portrait of the Artist, all of Murnane, Miles Franklin’s various self portraits – Sybylla I and II and Ignes (Cockatoos). Of real autobiographies I prefer those of philosophers and writers whom I admire. If I had to name a few, the list would include Walden and Mandela, but also Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Empire of the Sun.


    • Yes, I like ’em fictional too.
      (But I’m a bit tempted to read Kevin Rudd’s…)


  7. There is a spinner of these books in the shop of our reference library downtown and I always like to browse it and marvel at all the subjects about which I know little. This one might have seemed like something I could at least feel comfortable with, as a beginner, and it does seem to articulate some things very clearly which one might feel intuitively as one reads along but not necessarily think too hard about, in the quest to turn the next page. I also smiled at the idea of caution about the misery-memoir; dating to Frank McCourt, that’s been a genre I’ve avoided, and it’s nice to see someone else with reservations about it.


  8. I can imagine that a whole display of them might be a bit counter-productive because as you say, where would you start?
    What I’ve done is work my way through anything literary (you can find them all if you use my search box using the tag VSI). So I’ve read French lit, German Lit &c; Modernism & PoMo; and so on, and I’ve found with only a couple of exceptions, that they have all been ideal for beginners, and they were excellent at reading cultures that I knew very little about e.g. Chinese.
    And they are just the right size to dip into!


  9. In recent years I’ve read a few biographies, mostly literary, and found the mass of detail quite boring to read and even depressing in a way. Autobiographies are usually more appealing to me but only by writers. I especially like authors that write fictionalised accounts of their lives; all authors do it but some more so than others.


    • Well, that’s the challenge for both biographers and auto-biographers. Too much detail is very boring indeed.


  10. […] was going to write a post about the story of her road to publication and how it relates to my recent post and the subsequent chat about life writing, but events have overtaken […]


  11. I don’t read much in the way of memoir/biography/autobiography so probably this wouldn’t be for me but you’ve reminded me that they do have titles about the literature of different countries which would be more of interest. Must remember to look them out when I’m next in a bookshop.


    • And other ones that touch on literature too, like the one on Decadence.


  12. […] Autobiography, a Very Short Introduction, by Laura Marcus #BookReview […]


Please share your thoughts and join the conversation!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: