I have spent the last 4 or 5 weeks reading memoirs. I don’t know why I’ve done this. I started reading one and, being a bit compulsive, have now read a bunch of them.
I am not sure there is a strict difference between memoirs and autobiographies. However, there is a difference in connotation and feeling. Autobiographies connote something more weighty, researched and perhaps that the person is famous or important. Memoirs, by contrast, are more informal, written by seemingly ordinary people.
The memoirs I‘ve read are also not really about the facts of a life. (Auto and “normal”) biographies usually adhere to some standard of research or factuality. If they do not, there is the threat of lawsuits . But memoirs are recollections of life lived by the persons who lived through them. They do not pretend to be factual accounts of “what really happened” . They are interior. They are not “the true story”; they are how I experienced what happened.
Memoirs seem to be very popular in the last 5 to 10 years. They also seem to be written in large part by younger authors, in their twenties and thirties. This suggests that memoirs are a symptom of what some like to call post-modernism. I do think that post-modernism is over done as a category. We throw anything new or current into this grab bag called post-modernism but the memoir is a good example of the shift away from modernism. Modernism calls for biography, historical fact and a researched account that appeals to the “truth” as an external category. Biographies (and often autobiographies) have footnotes. There are no footnotes in memoirs. Memoirs occur within the mind of the author, with no disputing whether the text relates what did or did not happen. There is no external criterion, simply story.
This, it seems to me, is the essence of post-modernism. Truth is the story as I experienced it. Truth is the story.
Here are the books I read :
My Friend Leonard by James Frey
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs
A disclaimer : the books listed above have more than their share of bad words, bad things and immorality. That said, they are worth reading. All are well done.