Memoirs. Biographies. What are the differences? How do they relate to each other? In this post I take a look at them, using books I’ve read as examples and including the links to those I’ve reviewed.
For me, there are two main types of memoir (or autobiography). There are books by people who are already famous and therefore considered to be worth reading about because of that. And then there are books by people who are not already high profile but whose stories are interesting because of what happened to them, or maybe there is a particular angle to the book. Falling Leaves by Adeline Yen Mah is an example of this. Such memoirs can make the writer famous.
The main advantage of a memoir is the way it’s told, straight from the horse’s mouth, as it were. Would Elton John’s life story be as riveting and wonderful if someone else was telling it? How about Eric Idle’s? I don’t think so. However, this can backfire if the writer doesn’t use a captivating style or they focus on their own interests rather than what the reader might be interested in. For example, I found Janet Frame’s three volume autobiography a little disappointing for this reason. Memoir writers can of course twist the truth or court controversy, as seen in the reaction to firefighter Edric Kennedy-Macfoy’s book. Memoirs sometimes use ghost writers or are written in collaboration. I don’t see this as a problem, providing that the voice sounds authentic.
There is a trend now for very young ‘celebrities’ to publish their memoirs (often in time for the Christmas shopping season). I always had the idea that autobiographies were only written towards the end of a person’s life, after a colourful career which would furnish plenty to write about. I can’t help thinking that for someone in their twenties to have a memoir already is a little premature. The exception is when the young writer has something worthwhile to say, such as Yeonmi Park’s In Order to Live, which is about how she escaped from North Korea.
We are used to a confessional style of memoir now. We expect the writer not to hold back anything, so that we can sympathise, laugh with (or at) them, mourn with them and feel closer to them. Examples I’ve read include books by Bryony Gordon, James Acaster and Maggie O’Farrell. Memoirs are also useful for a behind the scenes look at a career in the spotlight, such as those of Simon Reeve, Emily Maitlis, Debbie Harry, and Buzz Aldrin.
Many people, even the famous ones, never write their memoirs. Even if they do, then the memoirs are subject to flaws and evasions. A biographer can take a step back, appraise the evidence, include information which the subject might not have wanted to include. For example, Margaret Forster’s excellent biography of Daphne du Maurier showed some uncomfortable traits in the subject which gave a more well-rounded view of Daphne but which she herself would be unlikely to confess to in a publication. Freddie Mercury never wrote a memoir, and even if he did, there would doubtless be some things he would prefer not to mention. That’s why Lesley-Ann Jones’ book is so good; she brings together lots of quotes from the people who knew him, to see Freddie from different perspectives.
The issue with biographies, of course, is that they’re only written of people who are considered to have achieved something or are otherwise of note in human history. If Jane Austen had never been published and become successful (even more so posthumously), no one would know anything about her life, except perhaps her descendants if they kept her papers. Luckily, she did become famous and so we know about her. Lucy Worsley’s biography of Austen is brilliant because it gets to the heart of who Jane was and what her life was like. Unfortunately, the further back in time we go, the less evidence there is on which to base a biography. None of Mary Shelley’s juvenile papers survive and so Fiona Sampson in her unusual biography makes do with a lot of conjecture about Mary’s youth, based on trends in education at the time.
The point about biography is that it’s all second-hand (or third-hand, etc…) evidence, possibly including any previous memoirs within the biographer’s research. A memoir can be written without demonstrating any evidence or research. We have to trust that the writer is telling the truth. A biography, however – or what we think of as a decent biography – has to prove itself.
Memoir vs. biography
I don’t prefer one or the other. Both memoirs and biographies present a human life, with all its successes and struggles. The difference is in the narration and presentation. In general, memoirs allow us a more intimate, yet flawed insight into a person’s experiences, while biographies allow us to appreciate the person’s life from different angles, backed up by research. I find biographies to be more of a sad or bittersweet reading experience because the subject of the biography is (at least in all those I have read) deceased and we have to go through their death in the book. Yet a biography can be a very rewarding read.
Do you like to read memoirs or biographies? Which ones would you recommend?