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Autobiography

Culture And Identity: Narrative Strategies, Autobiography And Trauma, "outlaw" Genres, Bibliography

Growing scholarly interest in the relationship between truth and fiction, along with popular interest in personal life-narratives and the "culture of confession," have brought new prominence to the genre of autobiography. Indeed, according to Leigh Gilmore, the number of English-language autobiographies and memoirs roughly tripled from the 1940s to the 1990s (p. 1, n. 1), and scholarly attention to life writing has followed this trend. Paradoxically, however, as interest in autobiography has risen, debates over the nature and definition of the genre have become increasingly prevalent. Etymologically the word "autobiography" is a compound of the Greek terms autos (self), bios (life), and graphe (writing). At its simplest, then, autobiography can be defined as "self-life-writing." But, as illustrated by debates over what counts as autobiography—and indeed, over what counts as "truth" in the postmodern world—the apparently simple act of writing one's own life is much more complex than this definition suggests. In fact, autobiography is as diverse and as protean as any literary genre, and attempts to define it have always been troubled.

Scholars of autobiography have long theorized the genre not as a discrete set of characteristics but as a literary and cultural practice informed by diverse cultural, rhetorical, and institutional contexts (see especially Bruss; Butterfield; Eakin; Egan; Gilmore; Hesford; Lionnet; Smith and Watson). This way of thinking resonates with postmodern theories of language, subjectivity, identity, and power that have reshaped how we think about autobiography and other "true" stories. "Self-life-writing," then, involves more than simply writing or reading a life story; it also requires attention to the rhetorical situation in which that story is embedded and to the cultural narratives that shape what counts as "truth" in a particular time and place.

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