The Masters Review Blog

Jan 13

New Voices: “Babyland” by Steve Edwards

Today we welcome “Babyland” by Steve Edwards to our New Voices library. This touching story about father and daughter isn’t what you expect from a piece about fatherly love. Baby Emma has been six months old for fifteen years. She simply doesn’t age, and in this whip-smart, emotionally resonant story, her family experiences the joys, frustrations, and sorrows of caring for a child that is forever young.

“In his worst moments, when his grading has piled up, or when Grace is irritable with him, or Baby Emma is colicky and impossible to please, loss spears him between the ribs.”

At the end of every day, when Jesse has finished teaching his classes, and the babysitter’s been paid, and Grace has returned from work at the museum and changed into jeans and a sweater, and dinner’s been eaten and dishes piled in the sink, they load Baby Emma into her stroller and walk around the Witherbee neighborhood. They are fixtures in Lincoln, that middle-aged couple out walking their baby around the tennis courts at Woods Park and past St. Elizabeth’s with its evening bells. That they have been doing this for over a decade now, and that at one time they were Internet famous, doesn’t matter much to their neighbors. If anything, Jesse thinks, it’s probably nice for the neighbors to see him and Grace and Baby Emma out for a stroll. It means everything’s right in the world. To see them sauntering up the hill on Woods Avenue, some golden late-fall afternoon, dappled sunlight in the last of the zinnias, a big Nebraska sky overhead, is to know exactly who and where you are, and to feel at home in your life. Jesse imagines that their stability—and its illusion of permanence—gives people comfort. Everywhere they walk, down every block and side street, their neighbors wave and say hello.

Jesse knows that they are lucky in some respects. Babies aren’t that expensive: milk and diapers, clothes, toys. Other kids grow out of new shoes in mere months. Teens wreak havoc on grocery budgets. And the staggering price of college. Baby Emma, on the other hand, is predictable. Year after year, the same clothes fit her. She drinks roughly the same amount of milk. In the lost year they worried about healthcare costs, thinking that she was sick. But she isn’t sick.

She isn’t growing—she is still, essentially, a six-month-old—but she isn’t sick. All in all, she’s a happy baby. She coos and gurgles and fusses and grins. And even after all this time, she’s a handful.

If Jesse doesn’t watch her carefully, she’ll wriggle off any couch or chair and bump her head. There’s nothing she won’t put in her mouth: pennies, lost buttons, thumbtacks. Several years ago, he found a pair of spotted beetle wings in one of her stools. Fortunately, Baby Emma is a good sleeper. She can knock out for eight hours, no problem, and when she does wake up all Jesse has to do is hold her and she calms right down. Sometimes on those nights, he watches her after she’s fallen back asleep. Her little pug nose. Her soft eyes and the creases on their lids. He knows she will likely never look at him and say, “I love you, Dad.” And he’ll never walk her down the aisle, tears quaking on his cheeks. But a night or two a week, he holds her and feels her tense body soften at his touch, at the sound of his voice. It’s something.

<<   Read the rest of “Babyland” here  >>

Jan 10

Fall Fiction Contest Winners Selected by Kelly Link!

We would like to extend our warmest congratulations to the following authors, whose stories were selected by Kelly Link as winners of our 2016 Fall Fiction Contest. The first, second, and third place winners receive $2000 plus a subscription to Duotrope, $200, and $100 respectively. All three stories will be published on the blog this year, so stay tuned. Thank you again to everyone who submitted; it was an honor to read your work. Cheers!

Winner:

“Night Beast” by Ruth Joffre

Second Place Story:

“Family, Family” by Jeannine Ouellette

Third Place Story:

“Good Creatures, Small Things” by Cate Fricke

Honorable Mentions:

“The Promised Land” by Devin Symons
“Property House” by Jess Pane
“Athena Dreams of a Hollow Body” by JR Fenn

Jan 8

One Week Left! Short Story Award For New Writers Closes Jan 15

There is only one week left to submit to our Short Story Award For New Writers. Submit fiction fewer than 7000 words by January 15, for a chance at $2000, publication, and agency review.

| Submit by January 15, 2017 |

“Thanks for providing a place for emerging talents to thrive!”
— Amy Williams, The Williams Agency

||| SUBMIT NOW |||

$2000 + Publication + Agency Review

 The winning story will be awarded $2000 and publication online. Second and third place stories will be awarded publication and $200 and $100 respectively. All winners and honorable mentions will receive agency review by: Amy Williams of The Williams Agency, Victoria Marini from Irene Goodman, and Laura Biagi from Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency, Inc.

We welcome fiction under 7000 words, multiple and simultaneous submissions, from emerging writers. For full guidelines and details, visit our contest page.

Jan 4

January Deadlines: 15 Lit Mags and Contests With Deadlines This Month

There are a lot of writing resolutions made in the New Year, so stay motivated with these January deadlines from our favorite publications. The only way to publish is to submit work… so DO IT!

Featured! The Masters Review Short Story Award For New Writers

$2000 and publication to the first place story! $200 and $100 for second and third place, and agency review to any honorable mentions. All three agencies that reviewed stories this summer are participating in our winter award. That means Amy Williams, Victoria Marini, and Laura Biagi will review the winners. Details here.
Entry Fee: $20 Deadline: January 15

Notting Hill Editions Essay Prize

Essay writers, this one’s for you! A prize of £20,000 (approximately $26,600) will be given biennially. Five runner-up prizes of £1,000 (approximately $1,330) will also be awarded. For submission details and judges, visit the publication’s website. Essays up to 8,000 words are allowed. More details here.
Entry Fee: $27 Deadline: January 9

PRISM International – The Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction

Don’t let the steep entry fee put you off. Each entry includes a one-year subscription or subscription extension for PRISM international, and each additional entry is only $5, so if you have a bulk of stories you’d like to submit, this contest is for you. $1,500 for the grand prize, $600 to the runner-up, and $400 to the second runner-up. Learn more here.
Entry Fee: $40 for US Deadline: January 15

Ellen Meloy Fund – Nonfiction Prize

Writing about the desert is a great way to warm up this winter. A prize of $3,000 is given to enable a creative nonfiction writer “whose work reflects the spirit and passions for the desert embodied in Ellen Meloy’s writing” to spend creative time in a desert environment. Send up to 10 pages. Details here.
No Fee!
Deadline: January 15

Room Magazine Short Forms Contest

We love a great flash fiction contest. Room Magazine will award $500 and publication to two winners whose work is less than 500 words. Accepted forms include: one or two prose poems, flash fictions, or flash creative non-fictions, as long as they are below word count. Details here.
Entry Fee: $42 USD to enter and $7 USD for each additional entry. Deadline: January 15

Breakwater Review Fiction Contest

A prize of $1,000 and publication in Breakwater Review is awarded. ZZ Packer to judge! Submit a story of up to 5,000 words by the deadline to be considered. All entries are considered for publication in the journal. Submit here.
Entry Fee: 
$10 Deadline: January 15

Literal Latté – K. Margaret Grossman Fiction Award

Send your best fiction under 10,000 words for a chance at $1,000 and publication with Literal Latte. $300 and $200 go to the runners up. Full submission guidelines here.
Entry Fee: 
$10 for one or $15 for two Deadline: January 15

Ploughshares General Submissions

Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction. Writers, now is your chance to have work under consideration from the venerable Ploughshares before they close to submissions. Send work in any genre that is less than 6000 words, or less than 5 poems. Submission details here.
Entry Fee:
$3  Deadline: January 15

Third Coast – Fiction and Poetry Contest

Judged by the incredible Desiree Cooper and Natalie Diaz! Third Coast is accepting submissions less than 9000 words and 3 poems until January 15. $1,000 and publication in each category is awarded. Learn more.
Entry Fee:
$16  Deadline: January 15

New Millennium Writings

Four prizes of $1,000 each and publication in New Millennium Writings are given twice yearly for a poem, a short story, a short short story, and a work of nonfiction (including creative nonfiction). Previously unpublished works or works that have appeared in a journal with a circulation of under 5,000 are eligible. Full details here.
Entry Fee:
$20  Deadline: January 31

Iowa Review Awards – Fiction, Poetry, Nonfiction

Don’t miss this one! $1,500 and publication is awarded in all three categories: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Joyelle McSweeney, Amelia Gray, and Charles D’Ambrosio will judge, respectively. Full details and guidelines here. Entry Fee: $20  Deadline: January 31

Crazyhorse Literary Prizes

Crazyhorse is also offering prizes in three categories, awarding $2,000 for the best poem, story, and essay. Ada Limn, Justin Torres, and Robin Hemley are judging. Up to three poems and 25 pages can be submitted. Submit here.
Entry Fee:
$20  Deadline: January 31

Center For Fiction – New York Emerging Writers Fellowship

We love this fellowship! $5,000 each, membership to the Center for Fiction in New York City, and access to writing space at the Center are given annually to fiction writers living in New York City who have not yet published a book of fiction. There are a lot of specifics, so read the guidelines, here.
No Fee!
Deadline: January 31

The Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest

This short fiction contest is open to all writers who have not yet published a book. Submissions must be 1,200 words or fewer and you can only submit one piece. Lee K. Abbott to judge! Full guidelines, here.
Entry Fee:
$22 Deadline: January 31

Autumn House Rising Writer Award – Poetry

The Rising Writer Contest is for a first full-length book of poetry by an author 33 years old or younger. The final judge is Ada Limón. The winner will be awarded publication of a full-length manuscript and $1,000. Send up to 80 pages. Guidelines and details here.
Entry Fee:
$25 Deadline: January 31

Dec 27

Happy Holidays From The Masters Review

Wishing you all a very happy holiday season. Our office is closed this week through January 3, but we are checking email and reading stories, so never fear, our love for literature never takes a day off.

Dec 21

2016 Fall Fiction Contest Shortlist

Congratulations to the fifteen writers chosen for our 2016 Fall Fiction Contest shortlist! The following stories were sent to Kelly Link for final selection and the winners will be announced on or before January 15, 2017. Thank you again to everyone who submitted. We were blown away by the quality and creativity of the work. Stay tuned for the winning stories and writers!

2016 Fall Fiction Contest Shortlist

“Athena Dreams of a Hollow Body” by JR Fenn

“Egg-Laying Queen” by Kristen Arnett

“Family, Family” by Jeannine Ouellette

“Good Creatures, Small Things” by Cate Fricke

“Mannequins” by Jen Fawkes

“Night Beast” by Ruth Joffre

“Property House” by Jess Pane

“Schrödinger’s Insurgents” by Shane Collins

“Scut” by Danielle Lea Buchanan

“Such Friends” by Leslee Becker

“The Döppelgangers of Thurston Place” by Josh Jones

“The Giant of Luna Park” by Jonathan Baker

“The Only People On Earth” by Ally Glass-Katz

“The Promised Land” by Devin Symons

“The Tanner Scale is Always Wrong” by Christina Milletti

Dec 19

Author Interview: “Cough” by Jonathan Durbin

Our fifth anthology published in October, and we are conducting a series of interviews with each of the ten authors whose stories it features. Today, it is our pleasure to share an interview with Jonathan Durbin, whose story “Cough” impressed us with its precision. Here, Durbin chats with us about his careful craftsmanship—this piece went through about fifteen drafts before he submitted it—and how fiction can be “a reflection on a particular emotional state.”

“I tend to know my titles before I start, which is another way of saying that I know what emotion I’m trying to distill.”

Your story, “Cough,” is set just after 9/11. The protagonist lives in downtown Manhattan, and the story itself takes place over the course of a weekend he spends at a love interest’s country house. Now, I know that you lived in New York during that time, as well, and I am curious about your writing process. How long after 2001 did you begin to write “Cough” and how did the distance from these events (or lack of it) affect the story?

I wrote “Cough” earlier this year, but I’d been thinking about the story for much longer. Lately I’ve been interested in using stories to evoke a kind of suspended time—trying to describe the unsettling, distended way moments pass following a tragedy. That’s what I was aiming for here. If I was going to address September 11, it felt important for me to discuss it in an oblique way, more as an element of context than the focal point of the narrative. Having some distance from that time, personally, was critical to the story’s angle of approach. September 11 is still so immediate, so present, I worried it would drown out the story’s possibilities, and I wanted to get at something quieter and more intimate. I wouldn’t have been able to write it had the real-life events been fresher in my mind. Some degree of separation was necessary, a quality I hope the story mirrors. I wanted “Cough” to be a reflection on a particular emotional state.

How many drafts did this story go through? Were there any huge changes from the first draft to the last?

When it came to the writing, I remember “Cough” being fairly straightforward—I didn’t struggle with keeping an even tone, the way I sometimes do—but I see now that it went through around fifteen drafts before I submitted it. There weren’t significant changes, but I did do a lot of work on a line-language level. For me, the challenge was to make the story’s affect flat, but not boring, which meant plenty of tweaking. In contrast, the story I’d been working on previous to “Cough” is absurdly overheated, told in excruciatingly long sentences, and uses plenty of figurative language. It’s terrible. I started “Cough” the night I finished the first draft of that other story, almost immediately afterward. Writing “Cough” was like having an allergic reaction.

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Dec 16

New Voices: “The Harshest Landscape We Know” by Lindsay Tigue

In Lindsay Tigue’s “The Harshest Landscape We Know,” a woman who has recently lost her husband writes a series of letters to people who have frozen to death. Tigue’s story is dense, disturbing, and powerful. Read on.

“I have a daughter and lately she looks at me and asks me questions I will never be able to answer. I hate to be her dose of reality, but she wants too much of me. . . . She wants to bring the dead to life. She doesn’t understand the dead and I try to explain what happened to you. I try to show there are other people out there who don’t come back and there are those who miss them.”

January 24, 1984

Dear Robert Falcon Scott,

I often imagine your reaction when you received Roald Amundsens’s telegraph: Beg leave inform you proceeding Antarctic. Amundsen. And just like that you were in a race for the pole. How concise news can be. I never pictured the South Pole as an actual place, but I’ve learned it is located on a plateau beyond the sharp points of the Transantarctic Mountains.

My husband Seth used to talk about the site of your expedition as a distant abstraction. He would say that his father, whom he hadn’t seen for years, was as far away as the South Pole. That’s how it feels, he once said. Another abstraction, of course.

I should stop and apologize. I should not write to the dead. But ever since Seth died, I can only reach toward people who are not here. I hope you understand.

There is so much I can never learn from you, Mr. Scott. Here is what I know of your story. Amundsen beat you to the pole. In 1911, you’d been working toward your trip for twelve years since you were appointed leader of the British National Antarctic Expedition. You had Siberian-bred ponies instead of sled dogs, and you had to wait until Antarctic spring—in November—because you worried about the ponies freezing. As your group trekked south, you slaughtered them for meat. Four men would make the last leg of the journey with you, all of you dragging your gear in sleds and sleeping through the cold nights in reindeer skins, huddled in a tent.

My four-year-old daughter plays in the other room as I write you this. Outside, the snow keeps falling and I can scarcely believe it is the same winter it was at Christmas, when Seth died. Years have passed, it seems. The doctor who prescribed me sleeping pills told me it was normal to feel this way. Sometimes, I look at the calendar, and count the days one by one, back to 1983.

Paige, my strange and wonderful daughter, has blond hair and freckles and right now, she sits by the sleeping, shaggy retriever we have—Toby—and piles blocks on him until they fall down. They always fall down. With every dog breath Toby takes, they fall down. Paige is able to focus more on tasks like this lately. She stares so intently and scrunches her eyes as if she can will the blocks to stay where they are.

Paige and I both stay where we are lately. I tell her we are like the animals in winter tucked beneath the snow. When we did go outside more, in December, I would tell Paige to put her mittened hand up to her ear and bend near the icy drifts. “Can you hear them breathing?” I would ask her. She would always say yes.

You roamed, Mr. Scott. My husband’s father was an explorer of sorts, too. I never used to wonder what makes me different. I live so close to where I grew up. I have never felt the need to travel, or leave.

To read the rest of “The Harshest Landscape We Know” click here.

Dec 13

Craft Essay: The First-Person Plural

When it is done right, a story told in the first-person plural can hold incredible power. In this craft essay, we take a look at successful uses of this point of view and some of its common pitfalls.

first-person-plural

“If the first-person plural tries to be too sweeping, if it does not acknowledge its own subtleties, it can miss the mark.”

Here at The Masters Review, we often see trends among submissions. During any given reading period, patterns emerge: sometimes, there are a remarkable number of stories with surreal elements; lately, we’ve been seeing a lot of pieces about drones; for one anthology, we received an uncanny number of stories that involved fish hooks. One of the most interesting trends to identify, however, is the popularity of specific points of view. For a while, we received an enormous amount of stories told in the second person (and we still get a bunch of these). But what we have been noticing a lot of lately (and loving) is fiction told in the first-person plural. Authors are embracing the collective voice—“us” and “we”—to tell tales about group experience.

While reading for our Short Story Award for New Writers this summer, we encountered multiple stories told in the voice of an entire town. In more than one case, the author used the first-person plural to explore a community’s reaction to a strange, shared event. A town overtaken by pests. A swath of mysterious drownings. The first-person plural is certainly hot right now. So, it’s worth getting down to the nitty-gritty and looking at it on the level of craft. What makes the collective voice particularly effective? How can authors best harness its strengths? And, what are some common pitfalls that authors encounter when writing from this point of view? To me, the most crucial question that the first-person plural raises is this: how do you speak from the perspective of the group without speaking for the group?

Over ten years back, a New York Times article discussed the rarity of the first-person plural in contemporary literature, and the extreme difficulty of pulling it off successfully: “Modern readers find collective first-person narrators unsettling; the contemporary mind keeps searching for the familiarity of an individual point of view, since it seems impossible that a group could think and feel, let alone act, as one.” However, about two years ago, an article in The Guardian discussed the growing popularity of recent novels that “provide varying degrees of differentiation within the collective experience.” It named Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea and Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to an End as two notable examples. It also aptly noted that: “Many contemporary first-person plural novels give voice to the previously overlooked.” Of course, both articles mention the Greek chorus as an early and powerful example of the first-person plural voice.

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Dec 11

Write To Publish Winner: “Clean Team” by Lyndsie Manusos

Congratulations to Lyndsie Manusos and her wonderful story “Clean Team,” which we had the honor of selecting as the winner of Ooligan Press’ Write to Publish contest. In “Clean Team,” a hospital worker is tasked with keeping the building clean, however, one gets the sense that while cleaning satisfies an obsessive obsessive urge for the narrator, it is also driving the speaker toward a dark end. Enormous thanks to Ooligan Press for allowing us to choose their flash fiction winner.

clean-team

“Clean Team”

by Lyndsie Manusos

It does not matter how you bleed. It does not matter if you’re being sewn shut or cut open. If your blood happens to splatter on this floor — my floor — I wipe it up.

I’m a nook and cranny expert. I dream of looking in all the right places. I’ve trained myself to find problem places nobody would expect needed to be cleaned. Hospitals are a temple of evolution when it comes to germs. I go out every on every shift with the weight of the world on my shoulders. When I begin, I begin a crusade. Don’t you get it? It’s a matter of reputation; a hospital is only as good as its clean sheets. Especially if you work for a hospital named after a saint. Nobody wants to read about a Catholic hospital overrun with blight. Like cleaning a paper cut in dirty water.

I wear latex gloves, and by the end of my shift, my wrists have indentations. My skin feels sandy and dry. Even when I take off the gloves, it still looks and feels like I have them on. I go to sleep rubbing my fingers together, expecting to feel the slippery material on my skin.

Most nights, I dream of a woman reaching out to me, covered in sores. She says to me, “Take my hand,” and I cannot. I dare not.

I have to get up and wash my hands, no matter what time of day it is. I think of the woman’s sores, and I wash until my hands are red and raw. I don’t consider myself religious but washing my hands is a form of prayer. An act of bodily erasure. Even the hospital’s name sake said in some brochure or another, “a servant is not holy if she is not busy.” My supervisor uses the quote during our annual reviews; he knows, though, that I don’t need the lecturing. Not everyone I work with feels the way I do. Not everyone takes cleansing home to bed. Most of them don’t care. But before the hospital, my father had always said, “Clean and be clean.”

Everything had started with him.

 It’s the night shifts that veer on the spiritual. You’re going against nature and your own bodily clock, after all. It does things to you. The following mornings, I take long, hot baths. It’s so hard to fall asleep after a night shift. I carry hand sanitizer, not one bottle but bottles upon bottles of them. It’s never enough. If I could, I’d take a cheese grater to my hands to shed the dirty skin.

Don’t laugh. Don’t you dare laugh.

*        *        *

There are whispers people like me could be replaced. They think they can create surfaces and hospital equipment immune to infection. Something about the material. “Rooms that clean themselves,” or something like that. When I hear that, I remember a particular day: it was winter, and I’m mopping the floor outside the waiting room. A man and his son walk through the sliding doors and the boy just ups and vomits right there in the entrance. Right there, like he had been waiting till that very moment. Ta da! The boy started crying, and the man put a hand on the boy’s shoulder and pointed to the vomit on the floor.

“Do you mind?” he asked me, his face blank.

Yeah, I wanted to say. Yeah I do mind, because that putrid thing next to you just ruined my handiwork, and what thanks do I get? Nothing. Even the receptionist looked at me with a “Well?” expression. I wanted to use my mop like a whip. CRACK! Splay the juices across the air, but I could never . . . I will never.

So they might need less of us, but they will always need people like us. People like me. I know the exact spot on stairwell railing that’s touched the most. I know where on hospital doors doctors push to wheel someone through. I know the curtains surrounding hospital beds can become re-contaminated within a week, even days, of washing. It’s the anxiety that makes me so goddamn good. Show me a technology that can clean like that — live like that — and I’ll burn my latex gloves.


2Lyndsie Manusos’ fiction and poetry have appeared or are forthcoming in PANK, Apex Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and other publications. She’s a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s MFA in Writing program. You can follow her on Twitter @lmanusos or visit her website. She lives in Chicago.

Dec 8

Roxane Gay to Judge The Masters Review Anthology Volume VI

judge-banner-announcement_vol-6

Roxane Gay will be selecting stories for The Masters Review Anthology Volume VI

Each year we pair with a guest judge to select stories for our anthology, which acts as a showcase for today’s best emerging writers. The experience and expertise of our judge guides our selections, and we’re honored to work with such a talented individual for our sixth volume.

ROXANE GAY is an associate professor at Purdue University, the author of the essay collection Bad Feminist, the novel An Untamed State, and the forthcoming story collection and memoir Difficult Women and Hunger. She is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times, with work appearing in Time, The Los Angeles Times, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Best American Mystery Stories, Best American Short Stories, A Public Space, McSweeney’s, Tin House, Oxford American, American Short Fiction, and countless others. She is a guiding voice for today’s writers and we are extremely lucky to have her.

Submissions for our anthology are open from Jan 15 – Mar 31, 2017. We accept stories and essays up to 8000 words. Thirty writers are chosen for the shortlist and Roxane Gay will select ten to publish. See our anthology page for information on past volumes.

Here is what Roxane Gay is looking for in stories:

I love stories that make me both think and feel. I want to forget I am reading and become immersed in the world the writer is building in their story. I am also looking for plot. In fiction something needs to happen and that something needs to be interesting. I am not at all interested in stories about white people in sad marriages, or writers, or college students.

Dec 6

Literary Terms: Narrative Nonfiction, Autobiography, and Memoir

 There’s something special about excellent nonfiction, but the water gets muddy when you try to label works under its large umbrella. Today, as part of our literary terms series, we examine three methods of telling a true story as we explore the similarities and differences among narrative nonfiction, autobiography, and memoir. (In past literary terms posts we have discussed the difference between terror and horror; apocalyptic, dystopian, and post-apocalyptic fiction; and legend, myth, and fairy tale. Take a look!)

literary-terms-post_nonfic

Narrative Nonfiction

Considered a fairly new genre, narrative nonfiction (also called creative nonfiction) uses literary styles and techniques to write factually accurate narratives. Some recognizable narrative nonfiction titles include: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote, Into Thin Air by John Krakauer, and The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe. What is apparent in each of these titles—and in narrative nonfiction in general—are the features of fiction, such as scenes and plot, adapted for the purpose of journalism to create a compelling and readable story. Clearly, there are no thesis statements allowed. According to literary critic Barbara Lounsberry, there are four recognizable elements to narrative nonfiction: the topics and events must exist in the real world (not in the mind of the author), there must be exhaustive research, all scenes must be in context, and it should all be presented in a literary style. Narrative nonfiction is therefore a broad category, lacking hard rules on subject matter or style. And to make things difficult, both autobiography and memoir fall under its large umbrella.

Autobiography and Memoir

Jokingly coined in 1797 by William Taylor as an absurdly precise combination, the term “autobiography” is composed of the Greek words for self, life, and to write. True to Taylor’s description, an autobiography is an account of a person’s life written by that person. Although they have gone by different names in the past, autobiographies have been around for literal ages—from Augustine to Rousseau. Autobiography can be difficult to differentiate from memoir (it is interesting to note that Amazon puts them in the same category), and often the terms are used interchangeably but there are a few distinct differences.

Autobiographies tend to chronicle the writer’s entire life, or a vast majority, whereas a memoir’s focus can rest on a smaller set of years or single event. In an article by The Guardian, Ian Jack refers to the autobiography as a record of accomplishment, one that can be written (or written by a ghostwriter) by any kind of person, whereas memoir has a more literary style. He writes: “The memoir’s ambition is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be, about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as “literary”, and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks—the tricks of the novel, of fiction—because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it.” Elie Wiesel’s Night is an autobiographical account of his own experiences in the concentration camps of World War II, but it is classified as a memoir because it covers a very specific time in his life. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is also a memoir, as it covers only two years of his life and dwells on very specific memories. Because both autobiography and memoir are generated from the memories and personal experiences of the writer, by nature they are more subjective and therefore naturally draw questions regarding factual accuracy. As a result, there is an ongoing debate about how closely the two forms should be classified, or given distance from, the term nonfiction.

Do you have a favorite piece of narrative nonfiction or a way you clarify between the three categories? If so, share in the comments!

by Kimberly Guerin