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!)
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