Recent headlines for book reviews in the Chicago Tribune caught my attention. “Springsteen’s Father Looms Large in Born to Run Autobiography.” A few months later another headline claimed, “Anna Kendrick’s memoir: A simple song, pitch-perfect.” And then a small blurb said Caitlyn Jenner has an upcoming memoir due out in April. I noticed how these books claimed autobiography and memoir labels, but I questioned if they really were what they purported to be.
As I consider reviews, blurbs and other forms of a book’s marketing and promotional tools, I want to know if I can expect to read about the entirety of someone’s life or just specific aspects of it. I want to know if the book I buy is truly an autobiography or a memoir.
Why the fuss? Yes, autobiography and memoir can be used interchangeably in some general contexts. In fact, Amazon puts them in the same category which is unfortunate because distinct differences between the two can be claimed. Autobiography is simply the chronology of the writer’s entire life. Conversely, memoir is a portion of the writer’s life, specific aspects that relate to themes and messages the writer is conveying. Memoir is a story, with a beginning, middle and end that explains why the writer is telling the story and why specific scenes are being included. Memoir is highly emotional, the writer takes you through a journey that may have been difficult and arduous where lessons were learned, wisdom shared and strength gained in the hope to share the experiences. Only after words have been carefully placed on the page and parts assembled does it begin to take form; the writer has made sense of it all.
An autobiographer does not necessarily need to make sense of anything, learn lessons, gain wisdom or strength. If I want to read an autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, for example, I could expect to read details of his life as a Founding Father and his accomplishments through his life. But if I wanted to read, let’s say, Madeleine Albright’s memoir, I would read her reflections on her personal story, how she balanced career and family, noting her emotions and wisdom gained through her experiences. Because of distinguishable characteristics, autobiography is very different from memoir.
But I refer back to my striking headlines. In the Chicago Tribune, Greg Kot, reviews Bruce Springsteen’s new book with the headline, “Autobiography, ‘Born to Run’ is more aptly titled than even diehards might realize.” Kot references Springsteen’s album, also with the same name as his book, and how it launched Springsteen into stardom. But then Kot writes in the beginning of the second paragraph, “Springsteen’s memoir tells the same tale: He’s spent his whole life trying to get out of Freehold, N.J., but it will always be with him. He writes of his father, who rarely engaged with his family, and how he spent a good part of the next 40 years trying to lift the burden he doesn’t fully recognize until he starts seeing a therapist. Kot goes on to tell the voice is confiding, honest, especially when judging himself. Wife and family are mentioned in the book as well as key words of isolation, disconnection and emotional containment moving to becoming a husband and father from childhood. Kot’s bottom claim is how the writer tries to understand his father and himself. He finds peace once he realizes this.
Kot’s review includes key words signaling memoir – isolation, disconnection, emotion, understanding, finding peace. His review tells me this is a memoir, not an autobiography and that it is no Ben Franklin.
The Kendrick headline, “Anna Kendrick memoir; A simple song, pitch-perfect” was part of a book review written by Laura Pearson. Kendrick is a 31-year-old actress and singer – star of “Up in the Air” and the “Pitch Perfect” movies. Pearson says Kendrick is forthright that the book isn’t a tell-all but a “curated collection of stories intended to entertain.” In her book, Kendrick writes of a “double-life,” one as a nerdy kid and the other as a passionate performer, of moving to the West Coast at 17 and that her 20-something experiences are typical. Pearson says she comes clean about her own persistent feelings of fraudulency. Perhaps this book opens a small window into the memoir sphere as Kendrick mentions her persistent “feelings,” connoting some emotional display, but as Pearson writes, “. . . expectations of a celebrity memoir is that in between cute anecdotes from childhood and never-before-seen photos of the narrator with other famous people, it will contain some delectable gossip.” Using the term “memoir” doesn’t invite a catch-all word that includes cute anecdotes, photos and gossip.
Perhaps by referring to a reviewed book as memoir, the reviewer has fallen into the craze, automatically joining the in-crowd who will snatch a book just because of its popular “memoir” label. Publishers know the difference between autobiography and memoir but appear to choose the memoir label maybe to take advantage of its surge in popularity, reaping sales.
A blurb in the newspaper reported that Caitlyn Jenner has picked a name for her upcoming “memoir. The newspaper says, “It will trace Jenner’s life from childhood and years as Olympic superstar Bruce Jenner through her multiple marriages and children and transition to Caitlyn. By mere definition of autobiography this books sounds as if it is one, starting at childhood chronologically moving through life to present. But we won’t know more until a book reviewer writes upon its debut, perhaps using autobiography and memoir interchangeably. Maybe this book will be a Madeleine Albright, as Caitlyn writes of balancing life’s demands of career and family.
True memoir writers couldn’t be more defined with a deeper understanding of their craft. You just have to read the 38 essays recently published in, “The Magic of Memoir,” edited by Brooke Warner and Linda Joy Meyer of She Writes Press to get the true meaning of memoir. The memoirists in this book beautifully illustrate their writing craft, which are certainly no autobiographies.
For now, with every book review I read, or take a glance at a book’s back and front cover, I will weigh its claim closely as either autobiography or memoir to judge if the book spans the writer’s lifetime or professes access to internal reflections, emotional underpinnings and takeaways for me, the reader. I will then be able to decide if I want to read a Ben Franklin or a Madeleine Albright.