Interpreting a Life – Thoughts on Biography & Autobiography

I posted this originally in LinkedIn Answers, in response to a question about why a writer would “bother” to compose a biography of a person who’d already written an autobiography. I’ve been intrigued by both of these genres since I could read.

My thoughts:

These two genres create entirely different relationships between author, subject, and reader. The autobiographer says, essentially, “Let me share with you my reflections on my life.” These reflections may be more or less honest, more or less self-aware, more or less complete. The author/narrator aims to seduce the reader into solidarity with how the life has been lived.

In a biography, the author uses the triangulated relationship between the subject, the author, and a particular realm of ideas to release literary truths about all three of them. The biographer says, “What meaning can we find in this life? What conclusions can we draw from this example?” With that basic question as a launching point, the author/narrator explores a space circumscribed by his or her own associations with an individual.

I love both – and reading either about an individual tends to lead me to wanting to read the other! How can one read Anne Frank, I wonder, without wanting to know the facts and context of her life from the outside? And after plowing through over 1,000 pages of Elvis’ biography, reading about everything from his colon problems to his Cadillac fetish, I (like the author) really wish he had produced his own account of his life!

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