Reflections on Autobiography
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DAVID GERGEN: Jill, welcome.
JILL KER CONWAY, Author, “When Memory Speaks:” Good to be here.
DAVID GERGEN: It’s good to have you. And in your new book there are two questions embedded in your very first sentence. You say, “Why is autobiography the most popular form of fiction for modern readers?” Two questions: Why is autobiography so popular, and why is it fiction?
JILL KER CONWAY: Well, let me deal with the fiction part first. In order to construct a lively narrative you have to select-just the way a novelist does-what events to highlight, what characters to develop, which ones to leave just in an outline. You have to build up tension in a narrative and resolve it. And those are all the art of the novelist. And then, of course, people who study narrative today have made it clear to all of us that you really control how the reader will read what you write by where you begin and end the story.
So it is a fiction in the sense that you can control what the reader will take from your history, even though it’s about real events, places, and people. And why is it so popular? I think there are three reasons for that. First of all, it’s true that we have a highly confessional culture today. We have people blurting out the most intimate details of their lives on talk shows and so on.
And that, in a way, has prepared a readership for a memoir-a popular readership. But I think the much more profound reason is that we don’t read fiction today the way our parents and grandparents did. We don’t think of fiction as realistic any longer.
And earlier generations went to great novels to be instructed about life and to be prompted to reflection about it, and whatever one may think about the faces of fantasy and reality in the modern novel, we don’t read it for that kind of instruction any longer.
And the third reason is that in an earlier period people who wanted to reflect on all the philosophical and psychological issues, deciding what their life means, once could go to great psychologists or philosophers who wrote in sort of standard English. You could read William James, or you could read Bertrand Russell, or Alfred North Whitehead and take them as starting off points to reflect about the meaning of your life. We don’t do that anymore. So almost the only place you can go to start a reflection on your own life experience is to a well-written memoir.
DAVID GERGEN: One of the main themes in your book is how much autobiographies and memoirs have changed over the centuries, the degree to which they represent or reflect the underlying culture.
JILL KER CONWAY: Yes. Well, you know, we start out in the western world with St. Augustine writing his confessions, and they really take the classic Greek epic and turn the battle in the conflict of the Greek hero into an internal struggle, an emotional journey toward-in Augustine’s case-a belief in Christianity. And so that narrative has for the male narrator-patently involves great struggle and conflict-test of courage, test of moral strength, and a final resolution in which the hero is vindicated in some way or another. And the standard pattern for a woman comes out of a totally different experience. Women, after all, didn’t figure in the classic epic. And they really began to write personal accounts as literate women in medieval society-12th and 14th century women-religious, who were living in closed communities and reflecting about their relationship to God. And so they’re reflections of a very inward kind about a relationship to a strong, powerful other, who’s male. And that narrative-for women, of course-gets secularized into the modern romance, where the meaning of a woman’s life comes from where and how she meets the romantic hero, and once that relationship is established, her story’s over. So those two gender patterns come-
DAVID GERGEN: They evolve. The stay the same, but they just involve in their form.
JILL KER CONWAY: Yes. They evolve into very different forms because the spiritual journey of St. Augustine by the 18th century has become the secular man’s journey toward finding and building his place in the world.
DAVID GERGEN: And then for women?
JILL KER CONWAY: For women the story is the romance, even though it may not be about falling in love with a romantic hero, because women are socialized to tell their story as though it happened to them. We think of planning as foresight in a man and it’s called scheming in a woman. And so a woman’s quest for power or influence has always to be told in terms of just happening as though she had no urgency in bringing it about. Jane Adams was, I think, one of the great 19th century progressive reformers, and she spent years studying the situation of women in Europe and in North America before she established her settlement house in Chicago and began a life of philanthropy and public affairs. But when she writes her memoirs, she says nothing at all about those years of study and all the plans that she drew up. She tells you that she has a moment of religious conversion in which God spoke to her and told her that she must do this.
DAVID GERGEN: When you talk to young people, what autobiographies are your favorites and you talk to them about and tell them to read?
JILL KER CONWAY: Well, for women I tell them to read the wonderful three-volume memoir of Janet Frame, a New Zealand woman. Everybody knows the middle volume. It was a film, “The Angel at My Table.” But it’s the greatest story about a woman’s life I know. From Quebec, the wonderful French Canadian writer Gabriella Roy-it’s called “Enchantment and Sorrow.” She’s doubly colonized. She’s French-speaking in an English-speaking country. And she has to discover her heritage in England and France. For men, I think one of the great memoirs of recent years is James Merrill’s “A Different Person,” one of America’s greatest poets, and a beautifully written memoir about a coming of age, and then I cherish from a much earlier period Harold Nicholson’s book of essays, “Some People,” which are studies in how you develop character with brevity and clarity.
DAVID GERGEN: Jil Ker Conway, thank you very much for bringing these autobiographies alive.
JILL KER CONWAY: Wonderful to be here and talk about them.