In our youth, most of us read fiction exclusively but as we grow older we crave something more real and turn increasingly to non-fiction. I myself still read mostly fiction ( mysteries , suspense and historical fiction) with an occasional foray into non-fiction ( travel, biography, New Age, food and whatever catches my fancy at the moment). Recently I was reading the admirable “ When Memory Speaks: Exploring the Art of Autobiography” by Jill Ker Conway when it occurred to me that I ‘d read precious few autobiographies . Biographies , yes; autobiographies , no. This of course led me to think why it should be so and about the differences between the two.
My wife was watching a movie about Mahatma Gandhi’s early years in South Africa and I saw a bit of the movie with her. In the part that I watched , Gandhi’s oldest son, Harilal, has left his pregnant wife behind in India and traveled to South Africa to help his father with his law practice. The older Gandhi finds his son reading a romantic novel and, rather sententiously, lectures him , saying he would be better off reading biographies in order to improve himself. Poor Harilal ! Sometimes, the Mahatma could be rather obtuse !
Perhaps a few of us do read biographies or autobiographies to improve ourselves but most of us do so because we want to vicariously experience the lives of other people . If there are lessons to be learned , so much the better, but that is not the primary reason for our interest. Both biographies and autobiographies will serve our purposes but each has its advantages and disadvantages.
A person writing about his own life would seem to have the inside track in writing about it. After all , it is his life ; they are his experiences. Who better to write about them than he ( or she as the case may be) ? However, it is one thing to know all the the facts about oneself,quite another to set them down in print for all the world to see. The natural tendency of an autobiographer is to conceal all the warts and blemishes and try to present himself in the best light. It would be foolish to expect Bill Clinton’s ” My Life” to give a truthful account of what went on with Monica in the Oval Office.
I question also as to how objective a person can be in writing about his own life. Just as his actions are dictated by self interest , his recollection of events may also be colored by his point of view. Not that he is purposely being dishonest but his accounts may be distorted by his being too close to the events as they are unfolding. He may not have a sense of perspective about his own life.
One other disadvantage of an autobiography is that the subject is not, in most cases , a writer by profession.In such cases he uses a ghost writer and the book is an ” as told to “. This is better since the ghost is often able to retain the authentic voice of the subject while giving the book a professional veneer.
A biographer may be writing about the life of another but so much information can be gleaned from public records, friends and acquaintances that he can write with considerable accuracy. The threat of a lawsuit forces him to double check his material and keeps him honest. Since he is looking in from the outside , he has a better perspective and can be more objective writing about his subject’s life. Of course, the danger is that the biographer may choose to focus on the more sensational aspects in order to boost sales.
Of the top of my head, the only two autobiographies that I remember reading are David Niven’s ” The Moon’s a Balloon” and Parmahansa Yogananda’s ” Autobi0graphy of a Yogi” ; the first I read for entertainment, the second for enlightenment. By the way, Niven was much better writer than he was an actor ; his autobiography is screamingly funny. Of the two dozen or so biographies the best that I read was Robert Lewis Taylor’s ” W.C Fields : His Follies and Fortunes“.
A final word — Which would you rather read ? Jackie Onassis’ autobiography or Kitty Kelley’s “ Jackie Oh! ‘
Yes, I thought so.