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date: 23 February 2024

Life Writingfree

Life Writingfree

  • Craig HowesCraig HowesDepartment of English and Center for Biographical Research, University of Hawai'i at Mānoa


Since 1990, “life writing” has become a frequently used covering term for the familiar genres of biography, autobiography, memoir, diaries, letters, and many other forms of life narrative. Initially adopted as a critical intervention informed by post-structuralist, postmodernist, postcolonial, and especially feminist theory of the 1970s and 1980s, the term also refers to the study of life representation beyond the traditional literary and historical focus on verbal texts, encompassing not only other media—film, graphic narratives, online technologies, performance—but also research in other disciplines—psychology, anthropology, ethnic and Indigenous studies, political science, sociology, education, medicine, and any other field that records, observes, or evaluates lives.

While many critics and theorists still place their work within the realms of autobiography or biography, and others find life writing as a discipline either too ideologically driven, or still too confining conceptually, there is no question that life representation, primarily through narrative, is an important consideration for scholars engaged in virtually any field dealing with the nature and actions of human beings, or anything that lives.


  • Literary Theory
  • Non-Fiction and Life Writing

As Julie Rak noted in 2018, Marlene Kadar’s essay “Coming to Terms: Life Writing—from Genre to Critical Practice,” although written in 1992, still offers a useful account of life writing’s history as a term, and is still a timely reminder to examine constantly the often-buried theoretical assumptions defining and confining it. After noting that because “life writing” was in use before “biography” or “autobiography,” it “has always been the more inclusive term,” Kadar supplies a taxonomy in the form of a progressive history. Until the 1970s, “life writing” referred to “a particular branch of textual criticism” that subjected some biographies and autobiographies, and a scattering of letters and diaries, to the same literary-critical scrutiny commonly focused upon poetry, drama, or fiction. Kadar cites Donald J. Winslow’s Life-Writing as a locus for this understanding.1 The problem lurking here is what Kadar elsewhere refers to as “the New Critical wolf”: theoretical assumptions that are “androcentric” and privilege notions of “objective truth and narrative regularity.” Clearly wanting to label this as residual, she turns to the then-current “more broadened version” of life writing. Its champions are primarily, though not exclusively, feminist literary critics devoted to “the proliferation, authorization, and recuperation” of autobiographical texts written by “literary,” but also “ordinary,” men and women. While the “ordinary” allows “personal narratives, oral narratives and life testimonies” and even “anthropological life histories” to enter the realm of life writing, this now-dominant understanding is nevertheless problematic, because it still tends to uncritically draw such binary distinctions as fiction/autobiography, literary/non-literary non-fiction, and even male/female. Heavily influenced by postmoderism, Kadar proposes a third, emergent vision of life writing that moves beyond a desire for fixity and canonization—“with laws and law-making”—by embracing a dynamic, constantly questioning methodology: “From Genre to Critical Practice.”2

This approach gestures toward a focus upon intersectionality in “unofficial” writing—Kadar’s example is Frederick Douglass—and toward an expansive yet politically engaged life-writing practice that can “appreciate the canon, revise it where it sees fit, and forget it where it also sees fit.”3 The same approach should be adopted toward such terms as “the autobiographical” or “life writing itself.” After describing life writing “as a continuum that spreads unevenly and in combined forms from the so-called least fictive narration to the most fictive,” she offers her own “working definition.” Life-writing texts “are written by an author who does not continuously write about someone else”—note how biography has at best been relegated to the fringes of the realm—and “who also does not pretend to be absent from the [black, brown, or white] text himself/herself.” Neither an archive nor a taxonomy of texts, life writing employs “an imperfect and always evolving hermeneutic,” where “classical, traditional, or postmodern” approaches coexist, rather than always being set against each other.4

Kadar’s early-1990s assessment and prophecy will serve here as loose organizational principles for describing how the move “from Genre to Critical Practice” in the ensuing years has proved to be an astonishing, though contested, unfolding of life writing as a term encompassing more initiatives by diverse communities in many locations and media that even the far-sighted Marlene Kadar could have anticipated. Even so, her insistence that life-writing critics and theorists must continue to “resist and reverse the literary and political consequences” produced by impulses toward “ʻdepersonalization’ and unrelenting ʻabstraction’” still stands.5

From Biography to Autobiography to Life Writing

Kadar’s support for life writing as the umbrella term came in the wake of an energetic focus on autobiography as the most critically and theoretically stimulating life-narrative genre. The academic journal Biography had begun appearing in 1978, but for all its claims to be An Interdisciplinary Quarterly, it was assumed to be largely devoted to traditional biography criticism and theory. In 1980, James Olney noted the “shift of attention from bios to autos—from the life to the self,” which he credited with “opening things up and turning them in a philosophical, psychological and literary direction.”6 Biography scholars would have begged to differ. Discussions of psychology, with an emphasis on psychoanalysis, and of the aesthetics of literary biography, with special attention paid to affinities with the novel, had been part of biography’s critical and theoretical environment for a century.7 Olney however was not just arguing for autobiography’s legitimacy, but for the primacy of autos within literature itself—a key claim of his landmark monograph Metaphors of Self.8 Olney was a convener as well as a critic and theorist. Ricia Chansky identifies the “International Symposium on Autobiography and Autobiography Studies” Olney held in 1985 as “the moment when contemporary auto/biography studies emerged as a formal discipline within the academy”—not least because it led to the creation of a newsletter that soon became the journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies. Although the slashes in the title—credited to Timothy Dow Adams—suggested that a/b would not privilege “self-life writing over life writing,” the variety and sheer number of critical and theoretical works devoted to autobiography in the ensuing years made it clear that for many, it was the more interesting genre.9

Institutionalization and professional assertion soon followed. Sidonie Smith recalls “those heady days” of creating archives and bibliographies, but also of “writing against the grain, writing counterhistories, writing beyond conventional plots and tropes.”10 As Olney had predicted, autobiography became a flash point for critical and theoretical writing in women’s studies—a trend heavily influencing Kadar’s thoughts on life writing, and canonized in Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s Women, Autobiography, Theory: A Reader, whose introduction is still the most detailed account of how women critics and theorists from the 1970s to the late 1990s drew upon the most compelling feminist, post-structuralist, cultural, and political writing in their encounters with autobiographical texts.11

This interest in autobiography—with or without the slash—produced an entire generation of influential writers. Because of their general eminence, Paul de Man’s and Roland Barthes’s comments on and experiments with autobiography were closely examined, but other theorists made autobiography their central attention.12 Philippe Lejeune’s profoundly influential essay “The Autobiographical Pact” complemented Olney’s book on metaphors of self, and so did Paul John Eakin’s volumes Fictions of Autobiography and Touching the World as arguments for the genre’s legitimacy within literary studies.13 A host of important books, collections, and anthologies soon followed, many with a strongly feminist approach. Sidonie Smith’s A Poetics of Women’s Autobiography was an important intervention into literary aesthetics, and Smith and Watson’s edited collection De/Colonizing the Subject forged important links between autobiography and feminist and postcolonial theory.14 Many other feminist critics and theorists in Europe and North America in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s directed their attention as writers and editors to autobiography, among them collection editors Shari Benstock and Bella Brodsky and Celeste Schenk; monograph writers Elizabeth Bruss, Leigh Gilmore, Caroline Heilbrun, Françoise Lionnet, Nancy K. Miller, and Liz Stanley; and essayists Susan Stanford Friedman and Mary G. Mason. Following in the tradition of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, other feminist literary and cultural historians sought out forgotten or yet-to-be-discovered women autobiographers—Patricia Meyer Spacks for the 18th century; Mary Jean Corbett, Regenia Gagnier, Linda H. Peterson, and Valerie Sanders for the long 19th century; Estelle C. Jelinek from the time of antiquity; and collection editor Domna C. Stanton from the medieval period to the 20th century.15

Often viewed through the lens of literary and cultural theory, autobiography therefore became the most-discussed life-writing genre in the 1980s, and has largely remained so ever since. But from the time of Kadar’s Essays on Life Writing, the term “life writing” became increasingly employed as the umbrella term for representing the lives of others, or of one’s self. The key intervention here was Margaretta Jolly’s landmark two-volume Encyclopedia of Life Writing. Published in 2001, the title term encompasses Autobiographical and Biographical Forms, and through her contributors, Jolly accounts in 1,090 large double-column pages not just for the genres that could be considered life writing, but for life-writing practices in a host of world regions and historical periods. She emphasizes her subject’s interdisciplinary nature. Although the “writing of lives is an ancient and ubiquitous practice,” and the term “life writing” can in England be traced back to the late 17th or early 18th century, it has only gained “wide academic acceptance since the 1980s.” While noting that “the study of autobiography is the most-long-standing and sophisticated branch of analysis in the field”—a claim that biography scholars would dispute, at least with regard to duration—Jolly grants Kadar’s wish to expand beyond the literary by including entries grounded in “anthropology, sociology, psychology, history, theology, cultural studies, and even the biological sciences,” and in forms of life narrative “outside of the written form, including testimony, artifacts, reminiscence, personal narrative, visual arts, photography, film, oral history, and so forth.”16

The Encyclopedia also provides “international and historical perspective through accounts of life writing traditions and trends from around the world, from Classical times to the present,” and covers “popular and everyday genres and contexts—from celebrity and royal biography to working-class autobiography, letter writing, interviews, and gossip”—a continuation of work, epitomized by Smith and Watson’s Getting a Life, that pays close attention to how “ordinary” lives are produced in a variety of public and institutional settings.17 Like Kadar, Jolly notes the “crucial influence” of “Women’s Studies, Cultural Studies, African-American, and Post-Colonial Studies” upon autobiography studies’ emergence in the 1980s, and she also observes that many contributors use the term “auto/biography” to point toward a more capacious sense of the field. But also like Kadar, in an “effort to balance the emphasis on autobiography,” Jolly chooses “life writing” as her preferred term, because it can more easily accommodate “many aspects of this wide-ranging field, not to mention regions of the world, where life-writing scholarship remains in its infancy, or has yet to emerge.”18 This ambitious and expansive reference work anticipates most of the ensuing developments in life writing.

In the same year appeared the first edition of Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography. Although retaining autobiography as the covering term—describing it as “a particular generic practice” that “became definitive for life writing in the West”—they share Jolly’s commitment to generic, historic, and geographical inclusivity, and take a highly detailed approach to clarifying terminology.19 Echoing Kadar, they note that autobiography “has been vigorously challenged in the wake of postmodern and postcolonial critiques of the Enlightenment subject”—an entity whose “politics is one of exclusion.” In response, they grant that “life writing” is a more expansive term, because it can refer to “writing that takes a life, one’s own or another’s, as its subject,” whether “biographical, novelistic, historical, or explicitly self-referential.” But, always sensitive to new developments and dimensions, Smith and Watson suggest that “life narrative” is even more capacious, because it refers to “autobiographical [and presumably biographical] acts of any sort.”20 With the added perspective of nine years, and then eighteen years for their second edition, Smith and Watson update Kadar’s 1992 account of the profound impact that feminist, postmodernist, and postcolonial theory have had upon life writing—although they still direct readers to their own Women, Autobiography, Theory for a more detailed “overview of representative theories and work up to the late 1990s.”21 Their main point is that the theoretical work Kadar called for has been taking place: “the challenges posed by postmodernism’s deconstruction of any solid ground of selfhood and truth outside of discourse,” when coupled with “postcolonial theory’s troubling of established hierarchies of authority, tradition, and influence,” led life-writing critics and theorists to examine “generic instability, regimes of truth telling, referentiality, relationality, and embodiment,” which not only undermined “the earlier critical period’s understanding of canonical autobiography” but also “expanded the range of life writing and the kinds of stories critics may engage in rethinking the field of life narrative.”22

An efficient two-page synopsis identifies the specific theoretical stimuli for this critical scrutiny. Lacanian psychoanalysis undercut the notion of the autonomous self, replacing it with a “split subject always constituted in language.” Derridean différance offers the insight that in life writing, as in all writing, “meaning is always in process, continuously put off, or deferred.” With Jean François Lyotard, Jacques Derrida also deconstructs the supposed boundaries between Truth and fiction, actually set by supposed “ʻmaster’” narratives. Louis Althusser’s linking of socioeconomic relations to subjectivity offers life-writing scholars interpolation as a concept for understanding life-narrative construction. Michel Foucault’s claim that discourse is an exercise of power tied to the construction of identity is also formative, and so is Bakhtinian heteroglossia as the counter to the fantasy of the unitary “I.” Feminist theory directs life-writing scholars’ attention to the relationship between the political and the personal, to the “cultural inscription and practices of embodiment,” and to the dangers inherent in universalized notions of “woman.” Frantz Fanon’s work on the colonial gaze foregrounds domination’s and subordination’s roles in the constitution of subjectivity, which postcolonial, ethnic, and feminist theorists all see as crucial for recognizing the minoritizing of subjectivity, and then decolonizing such constructions. Gay and queer studies reveal the performative nature of subjectivity, and undermine binary models of gender and sexuality. Cultural studies’ interest in “popular, public, and everyday forms of textuality, including everyday practices of self-narrating in verbal, visual, and mixed modes,” extends the range of life narratives that can be examined, and neurological studies offer insight into the brain’s material effects on memory, and into trauma’s impact on perceived identity.23

In “Expanding Autobiography Studies,” the final chapter of their two-part critical history of the field, Smith and Watson list the important critical and theoretical initiatives of previous decades. Performativity, positionality, and relationality are presented as “Useful Theoretical Concepts.” Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble and Bodies that Matter and Smith’s own Subjectivity, Identity, and the Body are cited as formative texts for recognizing that the self customarily thought of as “prior to the autobiographical expression or reflection is an effect of autobiographical storytelling.”24 Paul John Eakin and Nancy K. Miller are credited with expanding the applicability of relationality beyond feminist theory and women’s autobiography and arriving at a virtually universal applicability for life writing.25 The most important concept for contemporary life writing, however, is arguably positionality, because it helps critics and theorists evaluate how “culturally salient” subject positions, “always multiple and often contradictory,” find ways to tell their stories “at a particular historical moment.” Formed “at the intersections of multiple discursive trajectories,” certain life narratives insist on the significance of subjects who are dealing with “de/colonization, immigration, displacement, and exile.” Such narratives demand the critical use of such terms as “hybrid, border, diasporic, mestiza, nomadic, migratory, minoritized”; they also force theorists to consider the natures and purposes of Indigenous life writing.26

Despite this emphasis on life writing as referential, registering changes in practice still tends to involve identifying and tracking what Smith and Watson call “Emergent Genres of Life Narrative.”27 Their second edition (2010) foregrounds trauma narratives, disability life writing, and human rights narratives and testimonio; life writing appearing from a much wider range of locations, organized under the title “Critical Geographies”; narratives that foreground developments in neuroscience, memory, and genetics; the myriad of life representations arising out of the turbulent realm of “Digitalized Forms and Identities”; the templates or familiar genres deployed for recording “Everyday Lives”; and, more generally, autocritical scholarship, which requires critics or theorists to position themselves in relation to the narratives they choose to record or study and, in some cases, to recognize the necessity of being a part or a member of the group or population whose life stories are at issue.

Smith and Watson end their anatomy and history of autobiography by noting that the many “contesting approaches” to life writing are also adding many formerly “marginal” forms to “the canon of autobiography.” In the 2010 edition, Appendix A offers definitions for “Sixty Genres of Life Narrative,” up from the fifty-two provided in the first edition. But Smith and Watson “conclude” that increases in the number of relevant texts and presenting media will lead to major shifts in critical and theoretical debates, even though at bottom, a life narrative is always “a rhetorical act embedded in the history of specific communities.”28

Backlash, Boomlash, and Boom Echo

Raymond Williams and Marlene Kadar would both acknowledge that treating ideologies or forms of life writing as residual, dominant, or emergent, and therefore capable of being mapped onto a historical or progressive continuum, can neither assume the disappearance of earlier stages, nor prevent resurgences and unpredictable alliances.29 Take for example the history of critical debates since the late 20th century about the relationship between biography and life writing. The focus on autobiography as the central concern for critics has often been explicit: Marlene Kadar’s 1992 provisional definition of life writing ruled out authors who “continuously write about someone else.”30 In response, many biographers and some theorists have insisted on biography’s continuing significance, and even centrality. Everyone involved tends to agree that biography was once dominant, but is now either residual, or treated as such. But in the 21st century highly unlikely allies have been calling for a “Biographical Turn,” which for some means re-evaluating what it means to tell another’s life in different historical and cultural contexts, and for others actually means a “Return” to pre-eminence—emergent and residual, yet united in asserting biography’s value.31

Insisting that biography’s strongest affinities lie with history, and not literature or cultural studies, Hans Renders has arguably been the most visible defender of biography against the onslaught of life writing, which he considers a “shift” into an “ideology” emerging from “comparative literature and gender and cultural studies.” According to Renders, life-writing critics and theorists present autobiographers, and sometimes themselves, as “victimized by social context” and therefore, in Michael Holroyd’s words, seeking “retrospective justice.”32 The biographer or biography theorist respects the “scholarly imperative to analyze the world (including the past) as objectively as possible”—not “to correct injustice,” but to “understand it better.” Conversely, those who study life writing seem preoccupied with “battered and raped women,” “Mothering Narratives,” “ʻJewish Women and Comics,’” “homosexuals,” and self-proclaimed victims of “climate change” or “racism, and social exclusion.”33 The emphasis on gender here can be read as a response to the profound impact of feminist theory on autobiography and life-writing studies, and the gestures to race and class as resistance to the tenor of emergent life-narrative scholarship.

What must also be accounted for is the sustained production of biography by trade and university publishers. Throughout the memoir boom that so many theorists, critics, and reviewers have declared, highly conventional single-volume biographies have appeared regularly, speaking to the continued public interest in what Hans Renders calls “the biographical tradition, based on individuals like Hitler or Einstein, but also less famous persons.”34 The indisputable success of The Biographer’s Craft newsletter (2008–) and the creation of the Biographers International Organization (BIO; 2010–), with its hugely popular annual conferences, counter biography’s residual status in much life-writing criticism and theory with its continued prominence in the public sphere. And arguably, most BIO members prefer it that way. Like many poets, playwrights, and novelists, biographers are often wary of critics and theorists of literature, preferring at their conferences to discuss publishing possibilities, or to receive advice on research and writing, rather than engage in theoretical or critical analysis of biography as a genre.35

But of course, life-writing scholars are also interested in production, with Julie Rak as the most prominent cultural historian and theorist who insists that publication and distribution are salient, and even essential, subjects of study. Although primarily concerned with autobiography, her 2013 book Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market focuses on books “written, published, sold in bookstores and circulated by public libraries for people like my grandmother.” Rak presents non-fiction “as part of a production cycle” of “commodities that are manufactured for a market by an industry,” paying close attention to the mechanics of publication, distribution, classification for purposes of sales, and advertising for books “produced by mainstream presses for large audiences”—a critical interest that she paved the way for by editing a special issue on popular auto/biography for the Canadian Review of American Studies.36 The affordances and filters that particular models of production impose upon life narratives are technological correlatives to the ideologically informed reception that certain kinds of life writing and testimony encounter when they venture into the world. Most notably, in Tainted Witness, Leigh Gilmore evaluates how women’s life narratives arouse powerful, at times hysterical, and even violent constraints upon what they are allowed to say about life conditions, or about the actions of others—and especially powerful men.37 Though genres and chosen media may range from published memoirs or testimonio, to congressional hearings, to court trials, to social media venues and campaigns, the dynamics are the same. Women’s life-writing narratives threaten to disrupt or damage a man’s supposed life script by adding to it details of abuse, or cruelty, or criminality. It would be hard to imagine a more vivid example of what Hans Renders objects to in life writing, but the social and political significance of such narratives also explains why they could never easily be relegated to a marginal subgenre of biography. In fact, the power dynamics in Renders’s paradigm between male-centered “objective” biography and female-produced “victim” life writing mirror those in the scenarios that Gilmore evaluates.

The rest of this article maps out the most notable developments in life-narrative scholarship since the late 20th century, drawing principally on the “Annual Bibliography of Works about Life Writing,” an annotated list of books, edited collections and special issues, individual articles, and dissertations that appears in Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly. The sample contains roughly 21,000 entries; the discussion here will concentrate on books, edited collections, and special issues because they represent formidable and sustained studies of some aspect of the field, or point to a community of scholars engaged in similar work. While essentially tracing out Kadar’s three-stage progressive account of life writing, this article will also provide examples of critical and theoretical practice to elaborate on the expansions, revisions, departures, and interventions that the practice of life-writing and life-narrative scholarship has produced. The discussion concludes by identifying a few ideas that might offer new directions or understandings for those interested in how lives are represented.

Biography Studies Sustained—Residual as Dominant and Emergent

For a genre supposedly lapsing into subordinate status or irrelevance, biography continues to attract a great deal of critical and theoretical attention. Though usually retracing that familiar Western trajectory running from Rome through to contemporary trade publications, historical or thematic overviews, often written by well-known biographers, appear regularly. Some are reader-friendly primers, such as Nigel Hamilton’s Brief History, Hermione Lee’s Very Short Introduction, and Andrew Brown’s Brief History of Biography: From Plutarch to Celebs, all of which appeared in the early 21st century. More “weighty” accounts include Catherine N. Parke’s Biography: Writing Lives and Paula R. Backscheider’s Reflections, both published in the 1990s.38 Before any of these histories, however, came Carl Rollyson’s Biography: An Annotated Bibliography (1992), which organized and annotated the critical literature in English. Arguably the most prolific writer on biography theory and criticism, Rollyson has published many biographies—political, literary, and cinematic—and several guides and essay collections about theory and practice.39 Biography: A User’s Guide, for instance, discusses keywords alphabetically; Hans Renders and Nigel Hamilton adopt a similar format for The ABC of Modern Biography.40 A popular sub-genre comprises books for would-be biographers written by famous practitioners. Extending back to Leon Edel, more recent examples include Michael Holroyd’s Works on Paper, Carl Rollyson’s Confessions of a Serial Biographer, and Nigel Hamilton’s How to Do Biography—a companion volume to his Brief History.41

Literary lives appear prominently in all of these works, and many texts take them as their subject. John Batchelor’s The Art of Literary Biography and Warwick Gould and Thomas F. Staley’s Writing the Lives of Writers are edited collections arising out of conferences in the 1990s; more recently, Robert Dion and Frédéric Regard have edited Les nouvelles écritures biographiques, and Richard Bradford has overseen a substantial Companion to Literary Biography.42 Individual monographs include Michael Benton’s Towards a Poetics of Literary Biography, and Rana Tekcan’s Too Far for Comfort. And even though she has reservations about focusing on female writers, Alison Booth’s How to Make It as a Woman is a detailed and insightful study of literary biography in the 19th and 20th centuries.43

Despite literary biography’s apparently privileged status, historians have also explored biography’s significance to their field. Barbara Caine’s Biography and History was followed by two edited collections from the Netherlands: Hans Renders and Binne de Haan’s Theoretical Discussions of Biography; and Renders, de Haan, and Jonne Harmsma’s The Biographical Turn. Both volumes argue for biography as a historical genre that does not share life writing’s preoccupations with race, class, and gender. That the distinction is significant is also suggested by the title of Tanya Evans and Robert Reynolds’s “Introduction to this Special Issue on Biography and Life-Writing” for disclosure.44 German historians have also displayed a strong interest in biography, in edited clusters such as Atiba Pertilla’s and Uwe Spiekermann’s “The Challenge of Biography,” or Sarah Panter’s Mobility and Biography.45

Monographs and collections have delineated specific periods and locations for study. Thomas Hägg’s The Art of Biography in Antiquity has some affinities with the Ashgate Research Companion to Byzantine Hagiography, edited by Stephanos Efthymiadis; with Sharpe and Zwicker’s edited collection on early modern England; and with Mombert and Rosellini’s edited volume Usages des vies. Juliette Atkinson’s Victorian Biography Reconsidered is an astute and suggestive study of England’s intense preoccupation with various forms of the genre.46 And while such works tend to confine themselves to Western Europe—Great Britain, France, and Germany/Austria—or the United States, collections have focused on other regions, among them Eastern Europe and the Nordic countries.47

Despite the longstanding suspicion of considering biography through the lens of contemporary theory, a substantial number of such works have appeared since c. 2005, many from the Ludwig Boltzmann Institute for the History and Theory of Biography in Vienna. Wilhelm Hemecker, its director, has edited or co-edited several volumes; among them is the remarkable Theorie der Biographie, co-edited with Bernhard Fetz, which contains excerpts from famous authors and theorists with special relevance for biography—Samuel Johnson, Thomas Carlyle, William Dilthey, Sigfried Kracauer, Michel Foucault, the Vienna psychoanalysts—paired with commentaries by contemporary biography scholars. Fetz also edited Die Biographie—Zur Grundlegung ihrer Theorie, which appeared in 2009.48More than a decade earlier, a similar overview was provided by Biographical Creation / La création biographique, an English/French volume edited by Marta Dvorak.49 Monographs taking a sustained theoretical approach to biography are relatively rare. Two of the most notable are Susan Tridgell’s Understanding Our Selves and Caitríona Ní Dhúill’s Metabiography, an impressive overview by a scholar formerly at the Boltzmann Institute.50

The subtitle of the journal Biography promises interdisciplinary scholarship. Thanks largely to Freud, psychoanalytic and psychological approaches to life narrative have appeared for over a century, with psychobiography emerging as a clearly delineated discipline. Alan C. Elms’s Uncovering Lives led the way, with William Todd Schultz’s Handbook of Psychobiography offering a synthesis of scholarly activity by such researchers as psychologist Dan P. McAdams, author of The Redemptive Self and many other studies of personality.51 Other social sciences at times have taken their own biographical turn, among them both archaeology and anthropology.52

Indigenous studies scholarship represents a significant emerging engagement. A special issue of Biography entitled “Indigenous Conversations about Biography” explores the genre’s value and dangers for researchers recovering or creating archives, histories, and life records. In The Power of the Steel-Tipped Pen, Noenoe K. Silva refers to her method of establishing critical and publishing genealogies for Hawaiians writing in Hawaiian in the 19th and early 20th centuries as bio-bibliography. Fine arts scholars are also assessing what biography contributes to their disciplines. Melanie Unseld’s Biographie und Musikgeschichte examines the genre’s usefulness for those interested in musical culture and historiography, and a Biography special issue entitled “Verse Biography” should not be immediately conflated with literary biography. Though the lives discussed are in verse, the subjects are not necessarily writers.53

In their introduction to “Indigenous Conversations about Biography,” Alice Te Punga Somerville and Daniel Heath Justice note that even though the term “life writing” is common in academic circles, and even though the plan for the seminar for contributors held in Honolulu was to “unpack, repack, and throw out terms once we’re at the table,” they chose to stay with biography because it “is well-known in Indigenous circles,” concluding that “there is still life in this old term ʻbiography’ yet.”54 The same can be said for the publishing world; in fact, “biographies” are regularly appearing for non-human subjects. Noted biographer and novelist Peter Ackroyd published London: The Biography in 2000; the “concise” version followed in 2012. In Britain, biographies of the Ordnance Survey and the English Breakfast have also appeared.55 Resisting relegation, biography can still raise and fulfill expectations of a chronological, substantial, and interesting narrative that deals with real subjects, human or otherwise—a good story, with the added virtue of being true.

Autobiography and Auto/Biography—Mapping Self-Representation

If autobiography studies began in the late 1970s, its institutionalization occurred in the mid- and late 1980s, and its later codification came with the journal a/b: Auto/Biography Studies and works such as Smith and Watson’s Reading Autobiography, the years since 1990 have also seen sustained efforts to define and further theorize the genre in ways that expand its range and history. Handbooks such as the two editions of Linda Anderson’s Autobiography and Laura Marcus’s Autobiography: A Very Short Introduction offer brief, engaging entries into the genre’s past and present. Other efforts to map out auto/biography as a generic marker and critical practice include The Routledge Auto/Biography Studies Reader, edited by Ricia Anne Chansky and Emily Hipchen. Much of the content first appeared in the pages of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, which they co-edit. Ashley Barnwell and Kate Douglas’s co-edited Research Methodologies for Auto/Biography Studies provides an overview of work being conducted in the field as the 21st century enters its third decade, often with suggestions for future directions.56

Volumes devoted to theory include Carole Allamand’s book about Philippe Lejeune’s great influence on “l’autobiographie en théorie” or Lia Nicole Brozgal’s Against Autobiography. Marlene Kadar’s emphasis on the postmodern is mirrored in edited collections by Ashley et al. and Couser and Fichtelberg, and in Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s monograph Borderlines.57 Other scholars turned their attention to the field’s historical and geographical reach.58 In the United States, slave narratives have been a major subject for research. William L. Andrews’s To Tell a Free Story and Slavery and Class in the American South have been major contributions to this field.59 If we add Rachel McLennan’s American Autobiography, the result is an emphatic rejection of Georges Gusdorf’s highly influential claim that autobiography was an 18th-century product of the Western European Enlightenment.60

Over the course of his career, Paul John Eakin, one of the early champions of autobiographies as literary texts, has shifted his attention to autobiographies as foundational, even neurological, imperatives in all people. As the titles of How Our Lives Become Stories: Making Selves and Living Autobiographically: How We Create Identity in Narrative suggest, his close readings of published autobiographies are gestures toward identifying the structures and narratives of consciousness that constitute humans as humans. More philosophical in emphasis, Richard Freadman’s Threads of Life shares Eakin’s conviction that autobiography offers valuable information about human nature.61 Autobiography has however attracted most critical and theoretical interest in the realm of the political, often with feminism as the starting point. Liz Stanley’s The Auto/Biographical I and Laura Marcus’s Auto/Biographical Discourses were influential British monographs; and Broughton and Anderson’s edited collection, Women’s Lives/Women’s Times, turned the tables by suggesting that autobiography could contribute to feminist theory, as well as the other way around. Many of these monographs and collections were powerfully shaped by work on the distinctiveness of women’s writing, most notably the autobiographical/theoretical texts of Hélène Cixous such as Rootprints, which emerged from her famous writings in the 1970s on l’écriture féminine. Noted memoirists such as Jill Ker Conway, in her When Memory Speaks, also evaluate how differently men and women understand and write about their lives.62

Other scholars have worked to establish traditions of women’s self-representation, whether Florence S. Boos in Memoirs of Victorian Working-Class Women; Laura Beard’s Acts of Narrative Resistance, which focuses on autobiographical writing in the Americas; or Marilyn Booth’s Journal of Women’s History special issue, “Women’s Autobiography in South Asia and the Middle East.” Some of the most visible theoretical works address the challenges of speaking out through autobiography against political or social repression. A 2008 special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly was simply entitled “Witness.” Two of the best-known monographs are Gillian Whitlock’s Soft Weapons, which investigates the strategies Middle Eastern women employ to attract Western audiences in order to inform them about life during a time of forced globalization, emigration, and wars on terror; and Leigh Gilmore’s previously mentioned Tainted Witness, which looks at high-profile witnesses such as Anita Hill and Rigoberta Menchú to analyze the relationship between gender and credibility within patriarchal cultures.63

Though strongly influenced by feminist theory, other critics and theorists extend their discussions of testimony out to a wide range of locations and chosen media. Cynthia Franklin and Laura E. Lyons co-edited “Personal Effects: The Testimonial Uses of Life Writing” as a special issue of Biography. The essays in Tracing the Autobiographical, edited by Marlene Kadar and colleagues, explore the interplay between genre, location, national politics, ethics, and life narrative. Although Leigh Gilmore entitled her 2000 monograph The Limits of Autobiography, subtitled Trauma, Testimony, Theory—and although a 2008 Southern Review special issue explores “The Limits of Testimony”—developments such as the Me Too movement suggest that personal witnessing by the abused or persecuted will continue to attract the attention of autobiography scholars.64

A similar impulse accounts for the close attention being paid to autobiographical sub-genres. Prominent among these is memoir, which some would argue should become the covering term. G. Thomas Couser’s Memoir: An Introduction offers a concise yet rich overview of the form, with an emphasis on American memoir, while Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History provides a detailed account of the form’s fortunes over time. Both Couser and Yagoda move smoothly between “literary” examples and more commercial texts, acknowledging that popular publications of the 21st century are primarily responsible for many critics and reviewers declaring that we are living during a memoir “boom.” As with autobiography, however, some critics are hesitant to let this form of life writing refer to almost any mode of self-representation. A 2018 edited collection describes its task as Mediating Memory: Tracing the Limits of Memoir.65

Autobiography scholars have also directed their attention to the less prestigious, and even unpublished sub-genres of written self-representation. Philippe Lejeune’s longstanding interest in personal journals has resulted in articles and books drawing their subjects from over four centuries and a variety of media—from manuscripts to computer screens. On Diary, a collection of English translations on the subject, is similar in its distillation of stimulating thought to On Autobiography, Lejeune’s landmark 1989 collection. The sheer number, variety, and importance of his publications confirm his status as a pre-eminent scholar of self-representation since the 1980s. In French, his work on diary is complemented by such works as Françoise Simonet-Tenant’s Le journal intime. In English, decades before On Diary appeared, Lejeune made an important contribution to Inscribing the Daily, edited by Suzanne L. Bunkers and Cynthia A. Huff. In that same collection, Helen Buss’s “A Feminist Revision of New Historicism to Give Fuller Readings of Women’s Private Writing” offers another example of how contemporary feminist theory engaged with other theoretical movements, and often did so by drawing upon autobiography as a source for hidden or “sub-literary” women’s texts.66

Since c. 1990, the auto- in auto/biography studies has largely set the agenda for theoretical and critical approaches to life writing; indeed, for many scholars, autobiography is all but synonymous with life narrative. But as Marlene Kadar noted in 1992, the term “life writing” offers possibilities for study that autobiography cannot accommodate, or will even distort, as a survey of what has been pursued under the life banner makes all too clear.67

Life Writing and Life Narrative—Emergence and Pervasion

In the years since Margaretta Jolly’s Encyclopedia of Life Writing appeared, many substantial works have addressed aspects and practices of life writing as an interdiscipline. Zachary Leader’s On Life-Writing is one of his many publications as a critic, theorist, and editor, and although literary biography is Richard Bradford’s primary interest, in his edited collection Life Writing: Essays on Autobiography, Biography and Literature, the term serves as a container for the more familiar designations. The title of Life Writing in the Long Run: A Smith & Watson Autobiography Studies Reader, a compendium of the most influential essays by two of autobiography’s most prolific and prominent critics, theorists, and editors, does something similar, and in fact many prominent a/b theorists have made the shift, at least in their titles, to a “life” designation. Liz Stanley’s 2013 edited collection is called Documents of Life Revisited, and the title of her 2010 guest-edited special issue of Life Writing is “In Dialogue: Life Writing and Narrative Inquiry.” Perhaps most significantly, almost twenty years after his landmark discussion of metaphors of self, James Olney, the acknowledged founder of autobiography studies, published Memory and Narrative: The Weave of Life-Writing.68

The term increasingly appeared in publications about its fortunes in academia. When Miriam Fuchs and I edited a volume for the Modern Language Association’s Options for Teaching series, in the interests of full coverage, we entitled it Teaching Life Writing Texts. A decade later, Laurie McNeill and Kate Douglas’s a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue on pedagogy, and the resulting Routledge edited collection, were both called “Teaching Lives: Contemporary Pedagogies of Life Narratives.” For its two clusters on the subject, the European Journal of Life Writing took the same title as Fuchs and me, with the obvious addition “in Europe.”69

As has been the case with both biography and autobiography, as part of its codification life writing has undergone a great deal of historical and regional analysis. Sometimes the results are interdisciplinary, such as Penny Summerfield’s Histories of the Self, but in the case of the multi-volume Oxford History of Life-Writing (Zachary Leader gen. ed.) the goal is to produce a comprehensive survey. The first two volumes, covering the Middle Ages and the early modern period respectively, appeared in 2018. Other decidedly British, period-based publications include David Amigoni’s edited collection Life Writing and Victorian Culture, and Andrew Tate’s special issue of Nineteenth Century Contexts, “Victorian Life Writing.”70 The historical focus extends to France and Germany in the Modern Language Studies special issue “Co-Constructed Selves: Nineteenth-Century Collaborative Life Writing.” Entirely European surveys include Écrire des vies: Espagne, France, Italie, XVIe–XVIIIe siècle, and German Life Writing in the Twentieth Century.71

Continuing in the tradition of feminist critical interventions through autobiography, life writing has become a covering term for studies of women’s writing over the centuries and around the world. Some publications explicitly link theoretical positions to life writing; for instance, the Prose Studies special issue devoted to “Women’s Life Writing and Imagined Communities,” which puts Benedict Anderson’s brand of political science and cultural history into play. Other works employ life writing to map out genealogies of women authors and intellectuals. The edited collection Writing Medieval Women’s Lives reclaims a number of European subjects, and after writing Romancing the Self in Early Modern Englishwomen’s Life Writing, Julie Eckerle co-edited Women’s Life Writing and Early Modern Ireland with Naomi McAreavey. Reversing the pattern, Amy Culley followed up Women’s Life Writing, 1700–1850, a collection co-edited with Daniel Cook, with a monograph entitled British Women’s Life Writing, 1760–1840.72 Susan Civale’s Romantic Women’s Life Writing covers much of the British nineteenth century, as does “Silence in the Archives: Censorship and Suppression in Women’s Life Writing,” a special issue of 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century. Another co-edited collection, Women’s Life Writing and the Practice of Reading, ranges from slave narratives to Virginia Woolf. Finally, in Love and Struggle: Letters in Contemporary Feminism, Margaretta Jolly argues for the enduring power of written correspondence, whether on paper or as e-mail.73

Delineations of criticism and theory from specific regions have adopted life writing as an organizing principle. “African American Life Writing” is the title of an a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue; other volumes dealing with North American subjects include Viola Amato’s Shifts in the Representation of Intersex Lives in North American Literature and Popular Culture, and Katherine Adams’s monograph Owning Up.74 Ongoing work on European life writing has resulted in several survey collections. Life Writing Matters in Europe, paradoxically published in the Winter-Verlag American Studies series, is one of the more expansive volumes, but the region examined can be more specific, as in Simona Mitroiu’s Life Writing and Politics of Memory in Eastern Europe, or the European Journal of Life Writing’s cluster “Life Writing Trajectories in Post-1989 Eastern Europe”—despite the fact that “Eastern Europe” is a highly contested term.75 A life-narrative focus can also govern work on non-European and non-North American regions, whether Africa, Australia, the Pacific, or South East Asia.76 As for India, South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies has featured a cluster entitled “Narratives of Transformation: Religious Conversion and Indian Traditions of Life Writing,” and Biography’s 2017 special issue, “Caste and Life Narratives,” has been republished in India as an edited collection. An especially ambitious effort at global reach is Locating Life Stories: Beyond East-West Binaries in (Auto)Biographical Studies, which features essays about Malaysia, Indonesia, South Africa, Great Britain, Hawaiʻi, Iraq, Australia, India, and China as part of its effort to interrogate the dominance of Euro-American theoretical paradigms.77

A number of prominent scholars have devoted books to decolonial, postcolonial, and diasporic life writing. Bart Moore-Gilbert’s Postcolonial Life-Writing presented itself as “the first critical assessment” of such texts in English. Philip Holden’s Autobiography and Decolonization casts a wide net in its analysis of life writing by Asian and African leaders of countries emerging from imperial occupation, and Gillian Whitlock’s Postcolonial Life Narratives surveys 18th- to 21st-century works by Indigenous and settler life writers on at least four continents. Edited collections include the 2013 special issue of Life Writing entitled “Women’s Life Writing and Diaspora,” and the books Ethnic Life Writing and Histories and Transculturing Auto/Biography.78

Life writing has become a common component across disciplinary fields. “The Work of Life Writing,” an a/b: Auto/Biography Studies special issue, features articles grounded in family dynamics, working-class autobiography, ethnography, ecological studies, philosophy, medicine, political and social commentary, and institutional investigations. Paul John Eakin’s edited collection The Ethics of Life Writing foregrounds the relationship between ethics and aesthetics, but also explores testimonio, race, disclosure, and life writing as an agent of harm. David Parker’s The Self in Moral Space examines life writing as a site for ethical analysis. Life Writing has published a special issue entitled “Philosophy and Life Writing,” and Concentric: Literary and Cultural Studies one called “Life Writing as Empathy.” On a more discursive note, Joan Ramon Resina’s edited collection Inscribed Identities focuses on language as constitutive of the subject.79

Vulnerability and precarity are central concerns for many life-writing sub-genres. Since the late 20th century, G. Thomas Couser has been the most prominent scholar exploring the relationship between life narrative and disability in his monographs and edited and co-edited collections.80 Trauma in its various forms has been an important concern for life-writing scholars. Suzette A. Henke’s Shattered Subjects was one of the first publications to address profound physical and psychological upheavals, experienced personally or collectively. Susanna Egan’s Mirror Talk examines how crisis leads to cultural expression in media ranging from film to hybrid literary forms, and from quilting to comics. Miriam Fuchs’s The Text Is Myself explores the different forms life writing can take in response to historical, political, and personal assault. Gillian Whitlock and Kate Douglas’s co-edited Trauma Texts began as a special issue of Life Writing entitled “Trauma in the Twenty-First Century”; another edited collection in this field is Haunted Narratives: Life Writing in an Age of Trauma.81 Meg Jensen’s The Art and Science of Trauma and the Autobiographical discusses prison poems, testimonio, war memorials, and other sites of commemoration as “complex interrogative negotiations of trauma and its aftermath.” Life writing and medicine has been attracting increasing attention. Mita Banerjee’s Medical Humanities in American Studies is a representative example.82

Trauma can also be collective and global, and life writing often proves to be a crucial factor in judgment and restitution. Kay Schaffer and Sidonie Smith’s Human Rights and Narrated Lives explores how personal narratives often serve as the chosen response to national violence and deliberate crimes against humanity. Meg Jensen and Margaretta Jolly’s edited collection We Shall Bear Witness, and Katja Kurz’s monograph Narrating Contested Lives, both of which appeared in 2014, also discuss life writing in the context of human rights. Testimony against institutional abuse is the subject of Melissa Dearey’s Radicalization, and social movements such as Me Too and Black Lives Matter foreground life narrative as a strategy for opposing oppression and violence carried out by state agents and those invested in economic, political, or cultural dominance. Brittney Cooper and Treva B. Lindsey’s co-edited special issue of Biography, “M4BL and the Critical Matter of Black Lives,” combines theory and personal testimony in an innovative manner.83

Are Life Narratives always Life Writing?

Many critical and theoretical works of the 21st century seem to leave the writing behind—a major reason life narrative is increasingly chosen as the covering term. While Marianne Hirsch’s Family Frames is one of the most important books on life writing for many reasons, her attention to the power of images on the understanding of the past, extending even to Art Spiegelman’s graphic memoir Maus, has been profoundly influential. By calling attention to the frequent disjunctions between text and photographs, Timothy Dow Adams’s Light Writing & Life Writing is also a transitional text of sorts, anticipating the emergence of comics and other visual and verbal hybrids as major sites for examining life representation.84 “Autographics,” a Biography special issue co-edited by Gillian Whitlock and Anna Poletti, is one of many collections and monographs that explore how life narratives are embodied in comic and other graphic forms. Hillary Chute, a prolific editor, interviewer, archivist, critic, and theorist of comics, has published two monographs that document the intersections of comics, life writing, feminism, and history: Graphic Women and Disaster Drawn.85 Michael A. Chaney’s Reading Lessons in Seeing, and his edited collection Graphic Subjects, are substantial contributions to theorizing the interplay between life writing and comics. Elisabeth El Refaie’s Autobiographical Comics is another extended study, and Candida Rifkind and Linda Warley’s co-edited collection Canadian Graphic is devoted to a single country’s comics life-writing production.86

Critical and theoretical work on other hybrid genres includes Anna Poletti’s Intimate Ephemera, Ellen Gruber Garvey’s Writing with Scissors, and Hertha D. Sweet Wong’s Picturing Identity, which discusses forms ranging from book art to comics to sketch illustrations to geographic installations. Almost any life-writing analysis must now engage with the pervasiveness of visual representation, which can be recognized as having been an important component for many centuries as well. For instance, the texts examined in Leigh Gilmore and Elizabeth Marshall’s Witnessing Girlhood, a study of testimonial traditions that draws together gender, youth, and race, range from slave narratives and testimonio to comics and picture books.87

Responding to the proliferation of critical and theoretical engagements across genres, media, and disciplines, in a special issue of Life Writing, and a subsequent book, co-editors David McCooey and Maria Takolander ask what “the limits of life writing,” if any, might be. Gillian Whitlock and G. Thomas Couser implicitly ask the same question in their co-edited Biography special issue entitled “(Post)Human Lives”; and in another Biography special issue, “Life Writing and Corporate Personhood,” co-editors Purnima Bose and Laura E. Lyons's examine how analogies to human life narratives pervade institutional and business self-promotion. Grounding lives in natural environments is the organizing principle for Alfred Hornung and Zhao Baisheng’s co-edited collection Ecology and Life Writing.88 Just as trade publishers are labeling engaging narratives about anything from God to salt as biographies, so the critical concept of life writing is being stretched to contain virtually anything that presents or mimics a human story.

In terms of critical and theoretical attention, however, no medium for life narratives has been more immediately recognized in its emergence, or more closely examined, than what a pair of Biography special issues have identified as “Online Lives” and “Online Lives 2.0.” Anna Poletti and Julie Rak address the same phenomenon in their edited collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online.89 The prevalence, and even dominance, of life narratives in online environments has caused critics and theorists to recalibrate their work to account for this migration and mediation. This is especially true for studies of young life writers. The title of Emma Maguire’s book Girls, Autobiography, Media: Gender and Self-Mediation in Digital Economies takes for granted that the narratives to be discussed will be online, and Kate Douglas and Anna Poletti’s Life Narratives and Youth Culture ranges from more traditional memoirs, letters, and diaries to social media.90

Moving beyond the exclusively written has also revivified a longstanding awareness of biography as performance. Popular from film’s earliest days, the biopic has attracted substantial critical and theoretical attention. George Custen’s pathbreaking volume Bio/Pics: How Hollywood Constructed Public History was published in 1992, and a Biography special issue entitled “The Biopic,” edited by Glenn Man, appeared in 2000. Originally a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, William H. Epstein and R. Barton Palmer’s co-edited Invented Lives, Imagined Communities dwells on the history and the cultural shaping force of film biographies. While providing a historical overview, Dennis Bingham’s massive Whose Lives Are They Anyway? focuses on post-World War II films, with a particular emphasis on biopics with women subjects. Tom Brown and Belén Vidal’s co-edited collection The Biopic in Contemporary Film Culture takes on a similar subject.91 Biopic critics’ interest in actors and impersonation links their work to life-writing studies of performance. Ryan Claycomb’s Lives in Play argues that since the 1970s, life narratives have been central to the construction and performance of feminist theater. A special issue of LiNQ: Connected Writing and Scholarship entitled “Performing Lives” focuses upon the literal and metaphorical aspects of performance resulting from life writing’s migration “into other media including film, television, online, theatre, and the gallery.” Other scholars are studying those figures whose performance of their public identities led to great and enduring notoriety or acclaim. Clara Tuite’s Lord Byron and Scandalous Celebrity subordinates the events of Byron’s life to a study of the fascination he aroused, and continued to arouse, in the public. Daniel Herwitz discusses celebrity in The Star as Icon, and Katja Lee and Lorraine York tackle a similar subject in their co-edited collection Celebrity Cultures in Canada, though they restrict their stargazing to a single country.92 Fan studies are an integral part of popular-culture scholarship, employing a vocabulary awash in terms such as idols, icons, influencers, and “reality” stars.

The quotation marks around “reality” point to a critical commonplace about life writing—that as acts of representation, such texts necessarily employ fictional materials and constructs. The veracity claims of life-writing texts, captured in a term like non-fiction, are always under scrutiny, and sometimes considered subordinate to concerns with aesthetics or craft—a belief expressed in the term “creative non-fiction.” Efforts to blur or eliminate the borders between fiction and non-fiction are often motivated by a desire to absorb life narratives back into the domain of literature, and principally prose fiction, where the commitment to art may require writers to remake historical fact or the contents of memory in response to the demands of form and aesthetics. Although Serge Doubrovsky is credited with coining the term “autofiction” in the 1970s to describe his own work, many critical and theoretical monographs treat this process as their principal concern, among them Max Saunders’s Self-Impression, and Gunnthórunn Gudmundsdóttir’s Representations of Forgetting in Life Writing and Fiction. Edited collections also address the significance of these generic boundaries. Chief among these is Martina Wagner-Egelhaaf’s three-volume Handbook of Autobiogography/Autofiction. In Life Writing and Literary Métissage as an Ethos of Our Times, Erika Hasebe-Ludt, Cynthia M. Chambers, and Carl Leggo suggest that the interplay between personal histories and aesthetics has a profound moral component, while the title Experiments in Life-Writing: Intersections of Auto/Biography and Fiction suggests where that volume’s editors consider the most interesting of those experiments to occur. A related juxtaposition appears in the title of Jean-Louis Jeannelle and Catherine Viollet’s co-edited volume Genèse et autofiction, and the title of Helena Grice’s Asian American Fiction, History, and Life Writing lays out a continuum of sorts.93

The greatest champion for biofiction as a sub-discipline is critic and theorist Michael Lackey, who has written, edited, or co-edited numerous books and collections.94 It is fair to say that those interested in biofiction are primarily concerned with how the historical is drawn into the literary, and that the resulting sub-genre’s appeal is not its historical veracity, but its enlistment of history and biography in the cause of literary aesthetics. One parallel but distinctly different area of interest regards the hoax life narrative. Susanna Egan’s Burdens of Proof evaluates a number of texts produced through literary imposture, and Nancy K. Miller’s “The Entangled Self” is an astute and suggestive discussion of the issue.95

The discussion has travelled full circle—from a virtual abandonment of the desire to see life writing as literature, or even necessarily verbal, with a corresponding emphasis on the cultural, political, visual, or virtual, to a reassertion of literature, and more specifically prose fiction, as setting the highest and most appropriate standards for writers of historically and biographically informed creative prose. The journey itself, however, suggests just how capacious the term “life writing” has become.

Future Thoughts—Life, Biobits, and the Environment

Marlene Kadar argued in 1992 that life writing had to extend itself beyond genre to critical practice.96 In the intervening years, the number of genres and sub-genres, the amount of critical and theoretical attention, and the variety of practices undertaken have increased at an accelerating rate. It seems appropriate to close with some observations about how rethinking certain components of life writing as understood, theorized, and practiced might lead to new directions and widened perspectives. Those components are the fundamental ones—“life” and “writing/narrative.” Lauren Berlant offers insights into the first, and Marlene Kadar the second. With Kadar again providing the enabling metaphor, the discussion will finally turn to what should be the next theoretical transition for life writing—from practice to environment.

After being invited to witness “Life Writing and Intimate Publics,” the 2010 International Auto/Biography Association conference held in Sussex, United Kingdom, Lauren Berlant was asked her opinion about how the participants had dealt not only with her famous term, but also with life writing, the organization’s reason for being. Berlant confessed she was “worried about the presumed self-evident value of bionarrative”:

I kept asking people to interrogate how the story of having a “life” itself coasts on a normative notion of human biocontinuity: what does it mean to have a life, is it always to add up to something? . . . To my ear, the genre of the “life” is a most destructive conventionalized form of normativity: when norms feel like laws, they constitute a sociology of the rules for belonging and intelligibility whose narrowness threatens people’s capacity to invent ways to attach to the world.97

Berlant’s comment is very helpful, because it prompts us to look seriously at the “bio” of autobiography and biography, and at the “life” of life writing. She suggests locales where this interrogation is already underway:

Queer, socialist/anti-capitalist, and feminist work have all been about multiplying the ways we know that people have lived and can live, so that it would be possible to take up any number of positions during and in life in order to have “a life.”98

Such work has expanded the range and value of life writing as a practice; an even stronger commitment to determining what is meant by “a life” can only lead to new possibilities for socially and politically engaged scholarship.

But Berlant is suspicious of “writing” as well, and not because the attention of so much scholarship has been redirected to graphic narratives, or online. Her concern about the “self-evident value of bionarrative” also suggests that replacing “life writing” with “life narrative” as the covering term might still set an uninterrogated limit on what we should be examining. Entertaining the possibility of “a biography of gesture, of interruption,” Berlant asks rhetorically “Shouldn’t life writing be a primary laboratory for theorizing ʻthe event’?”99 Marlene Kadar argues that such theoretical practice is already happening. In her essay “The Devouring: Traces of Roma in the Holocaust,” she campaigns for including “the fragment and trace as member-genres in the taxonomy of auto/biographical practices” outlined in such theoretical works as her own “(flawed) 1992 definition of life-writing texts.”100 Drawing upon Blanchot’s sense of the fragment as “an unfinished separation that is always reaching out for further interpretation,” Kadar suggests that when confronted with the near-erasure of all evidence that a life was ever lived, we can register affect even when lacking narrative. Any surviving evidence of a life can potentially express “more than what happened,” and anything that “helps us to understand what the particular event means to the subject, can be read as autobiographical.” Whether a song, a tattoo, an anecdote, or a name on a list, in its evocative yet resisting brevity, the fragment speaks of a life without providing even the outline of a realized narrative—“what it felt like, not exactly what it was like.”101 Kadar therefore sets forth “the fragment and trace as genres that both contribute to our previous theorizations” of autobiography and life narrative, but “also as necessarily unfinished genres that call out to us to attempt to finish them”—often with important critical and political results.102 One might add that, in discursive terms, the fragment or trace can be thought of as analogous to the morpheme—they are the smallest units recognizable as evidence of a life. With an embedded reference to virtual and online representation, these fragments and traces might be termed “biobits.”

The biobit would represent the micro limit of life writing theory; drawing upon but extending Kadar once more, one can suggest what the macro might be. In “Whose Life Is It Anyway? Out of the Bathtub and into the Narrative,” Kadar insists on the need to “theorize a new genre that still goes beyond and yet includes the old word [autobiography], the old gender, and the old style,” but will also “name what is now.” But this new genre must differ markedly from our common understanding, because “like water,” which “assumes the shape of the vessel” containing it, the nature of the contents of this new genre will not be determined or defined by the container. The “essence” of genre “can never really be captured.”103 To elaborate on this thought, Kadar turns to a novel by Gail Scott. While most of the main character’s life takes place in a bathtub, we know that at some point she will have to leave it—a move that will carry her “Out of the Bathtub and into Narrative.” Life writing, then, is best thought of not as a container, a genre, or a practice, but to the greatest extent possible, as a component of uncontained water: an ocean, an environment in which micro biomass—biobits—coexists with the largest, most familiar, most coherent examples—the biographies and autobiographies, the autoethnographies and the biopics, the online presences and the comics. Though all are in some way engaged in and linked through bio-representation, only some are implicated in writing, or even in narrative.

If viewed in this way, all of life writing’s inherited genres and sub-genres remain useful and productive methods for describing, comparing, and acting. But it must always be remembered that neither genre nor practice is sufficient as a ground or container for theorizing what may still be called life writing or life narrative, but could perhaps be more accurately referred to as signs of life.