Every now and then one is prodded to think hard about something one has previously thought about hardly at all. This can be a somewhat disconcerting experience. I find myself in the throes of thinking about autobiography. Don’t worry. I have no intention of writing one. Even were I so inclined I would shrink before the menacing fact that it turns out that I don’t know what autobiography is. Nor is it particularly comforting that very few other people seem to know either.
Not a single one of the early writers I am dealing with abides by the “autobiographical pact”. They all subscribe to a canon of strict veracity, but one founded in the useful paradox that fiction is often truer than “what really happened”. If you can throw in a bit of what we would be inclined to call plagiarism, it only stiffens the truth. More modern writers who have tried this have come up with mixed appraisals. Most people, including me, think that Gertrude Stein was rather brilliant in calling her memoirs The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—her lifelong companion. But as I pointed out in The Anti-Communist Manifestos, fictive autobiography in the contemporary period is likely to be judged on political grounds. Rigoberta Menchú, an indigenous Guatemalan activist, winner of the 1992 Nobel Prize for Peace, was easily forgiven for making up various important details of her autobiography I, Rigoberta Menchú. On the other hand James Frey, author of a memoir entitled A Million Little Pieces, was effectively rendered an un-person by Oprah in a scathing interrogation on live TV; she was irate at having promoted his somewhat fictional autobiography unawares on an earlier program.