Memoir: An Introduction

Memoir: An Introduction

Memoir: An Introduction

Memoir: An Introduction


Each year brings a batch of new memoirs, ranging from works by former teachers and celebrity has-beens to disillusioned soldiers and bestselling novelists. In addition to becoming bestsellers in their own right, memoirs have become a popular object of inquiry in the academy and a mainstay in most MFA workshops. Courses in what is now called "life writing" study memoir alongside personal essays, diaries, and autobiographies.Memoir: An Introductionproffers a succinct and comprehensive survey of the genre (and itsmanysubgenres) while taking readers through the various techniques, themes, and debates that have come to characterize the ubiquitous literary form. Its fictional origins are traced to eighteenth-century British novels; its early American roots are examined in Benjamin Franklin's Autobiography and colonial captivity narratives; and its ethical conundrums are considered via the imbroglios brought on by the questionable claims in Rigoberta Mench's I, Rigoberta, and more notoriously, James Frey's A Million Little Pieces. Alongside these more traditional literary forms, Couser expands the discussion of memoir to include film with what he calls "documemoir" (exemplified in Nathaniel Kahn's My Architect) and graphic narratives like Art Spiegelman's Maus.


Saying what memoir is would seem to be the obvious place to begin this book, but that’s not as easy as it might seem. For one thing, the term is used in significantly different ways in different contexts. For another, it has an inherent ambiguity at its core. More about that later.

It may be more helpful to begin by saying what memoir is not.

Memoir is not fiction. Memoirs are not novels.

As a nonfiction genre, memoir depicts the lives of real, not imagined, individuals. Granted, in the West, memoir developed in tandem with the novel; in English, at least, the two genres have enjoyed a symbiotic relationship for some two hundred years. And they remain intertwined. Today, memoirs often incorporate invented or enhanced material, and they often use novelistic techniques. Indeed, they are themselves a form of literary art, and their artifactuality—the sometimes uneasy relation between their artfulness and their presumed factuality—sometimes gets their authors into trouble.

Conversely, realistic novels often take the form of memoirs. In practice, it’s not always easy to tell whether a particular narrative is one or the other; there is no bright line between them. And of course, sometimes fiction masquerades as—pretends to be—nonfiction.

Loosely speaking, both the novel and the memoir are “mimetic.” That is, they imitate life in the sense that art is said to imitate nature. Nevertheless, an important conceptual distinction obtains: memoir presents itself, and is therefore read, as a nonfictional record or re-presentation of actual humans’ experience. Fiction does not; it creates its own lifelike reality. And that makes all the difference.

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.