When is an Autobiography a Memoir?

A weekly series of riffs in 200 words

I’ve read a heap of biographies: the subjects as diverse as Aristotle Onassis, John Lennon and the delightful ‘Dame Edna Everage’ (does ‘she’ count?), as well as a good pile of autobiographies and memoirs.
Whilst a biography is what it is, I sometimes find it hard to differentiate between autobiography and memoir.  
A memoir is like a vignette plucked from the fullness of a life, or even a series of vignettes (Angela’s Ashes is a well-known memoir but I would cite Kay Summersby Morgan’s Past Forgetting as an equally good [completely different] example).  Conversely, an autobiography is generally a sketch of a whole life up to the time of writing (such as Christiaan Barnard’s One Life).
Some people believe autobiographies to be scholarly whereas a memoir might be considered more entertaining.
But why?
Well, the short answer is, I think, Voice (yes, with a capital V).  One of my friends – a wonderful writer herself – suggests humour and insight as two qualities that make a good Memoir and I believe these traits best show themselves through the author’s Voice.
Here’s a conundrum then.  The ‘autobiography of…the thirty-seventh president of the United States’ is titled The Memoirs of Richard Nixon.
Go figure.

The answer to Friday’s Fictionary Dictionary…yclept means ‘having the name of’.

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3 Comments

Filed under 200 words, Writing

3 responses to “When is an Autobiography a Memoir?

  1. And my answer is, does it really matter? My rule of thumb differentiation is yours But I suspect these days there’s a bit of fashion and marketing in it. Memoir does suggest something lighter, more conversational and therefore might sell better, regardless really of whether it is lighter! My tuppence worth.

  2. Ah yes, I see what you mean. I never even thought of it from a marketing perspective. I guess it would have been seen as a way to make autobiography seem a bit ‘sexier’.

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