I have a lot of fun imagining the phone calls that must happen about autobiographies.
Okay, so there was this one autobiography published which was about a woman's escape from a Nazi camp, her dangerous trek across Europe, and... wait for it... her adoption by a pack of wolves.
Imagine the discussion about that.
PUBLISHER TYPE #1: So this lunatic woman calls and says she escaped from a camp.
PUBLISHER TYPE #2: That sounds pretty gripping, actually.
PUBLISHER TYPE #1: And was subsequently raised by wolves.
PUBLISHER TYPE #2: ...
PUBLISHER TYPE #1: Yes sir, you should've heard the woman. She was obviously totally crazy!
PUBLISHER TYPE #2: Think very carefully about this next question.
PUBLISHER TYPE #1: Okay...
PUBLISHER TYPE #2: Did she sound crazy enough to have been raised by wolves?
Shockingly, this autobiography turned out to be somewhat less than true, which probably caused a discussion that went a bit like this.
PUBLISHER TYPE #1: So actually, you aren't even Jewish.
WOLF WOMAN: I've always felt like I was Jewish.
PUBLISHER TYPE #1: Have you always felt like you were raised by wolves?
Another woman recently wrote an autobiography which was set to be a smash hit with a book tour and a spread in the paper showing the lady's picture and talking about her book, an account of growing up in the ghetto, being mixed race, and dealing with her sister's drug abuse, various activities that funded the drug abuse, and death.
This caused a call to the newspaper.
ANONYMOUS WOMAN: Hi there. Uh, I was just calling to tell you that this woman's autobiography is all lies. She grew up in a loving family in the suburbs, and she's not mixed race, and she's never been involved in drugs.
PAPER: And how, may I ask, do you know all this?
ANONYMOUS WOMAN: Well... I'm her sister.
Obviously, not all autobiographies are crazy packs of lies. But these extreme examples do show that, uh, sometimes you'd be right to be a little doubtful when reading an autobiography.
I don't read many autobiographies because they're meant to be true, and I have a hard time believing them. I mean, when my friends ask me how my day was, I get carried away. I'll tell them a different story, a funnier story, a story with a proper conclusion. Real life is sometimes boring, rarely conclusive and boy, does the dialogue need work.
If thousands of total strangers opened a book called Ask Me How My Entire Life Was... well, I'm not saying I'd tell people I was raised by wolves. (I would not call it Ask Me How My Entire Life Was either. I would call it Throwing Up Daffodils, because - that is something that once happened to me. Kids: don't take dares to eat all the daffodils in a vase. Seriously, I mean it.) But I'm not sure that the end result would bear all that much resemblance to reality even if I really meant it to, because it would be so personal, and memory is so tricky, and stories slip their leashes and end up in unexpected places.
Now of course, I could just accept autobiographies as partly-fiction and roll with it.
But there's still the problem that you have to be really interesting to make an autobiography work. In fiction, even if there's a clear protagonist the writer isn't that protagonist and there are other people who are really important in the story. Everyone's interested in their own life because it is happening to them, but I would completely understand if people said, for instance 'What do I care if some poor half-wit girl eats flowers?'
So my problems with autobiographies: it's hard to make them truthful, and it's hard to make them interesting. Usually I steer clear, but there are some autobiographies I really like. And why do I like them?
Because they're really interesting. Because they're really well-written. (No matter how interesting people's lives are, they really should know how to write, otherwise nobody will care.)
I have to admit that I cheated a bit with both these books.
Wild Swans isn't just about Jung Chang, it's not just an autobiography. It's also about her grandmother who was a concubine with bound feet, her mother who was a hardcore Communist, and her own life under Mao. Which means that it doesn't fall into the autobiography trap of being all about her, because it's not all about her.
And I have to admit, I liked the grandmother parts the best, because they were so interesting and different and read like history! She had bound feet, I was horrorstruck and fascinated at once.
And in the case of All The Fishes Come Home to Roost I already read rachelmanija's livejournal, so when I picked up the book I knew she was interesting and I knew she could write. I also thought that I'd never read anything about life in a commune in India, and I wanted to hear more.
All The Fishes has something I would really like to see in other autobiographies. Rachel Manija Brown says that sometimes she doesn't remember things: there are several scenes where she describes what she thought was going on, then details other people's entirely different viewpoints, and leaves it up to the reader to decide. When wrapping up the book she gives us her mother's perspective, which is a world apart from her own, because she wants to be fair. That is awesome. And it makes me trust her autobiography, because that's what real life is. Nobody's going through it as a monologue: there are other players around.
One thing these books had in common was that they were about truly different experiences: a commune in India, and Chinese concubinage to Communism in a generation. They told me something new as well as telling me something true. I loved that.
And another thing was that they were both really funny. Both books contained serious, terrible scenes: both of them featured what I would consider torture. But that's another thing about real life: it doesn't have a prevailing mood. Some days it's all zany adventure, some days it's the Love Story of the Century, and some days you have to cope with horror.
Autobiographies are often too serious for me: I think the time to pen an epic of your endless suffering is when you're fourteen. So I really loved it that both the books made me laugh out loud: Jung Chang's pickpocket scene and Rachel Manija Brown's decapitation scene come to mind. (What, you guys don't think that theft and decapitation are funny?)
Do you guys have any autobiographies you really like? (Because that is what these posts are about, saying 'I would not usually read this, but here are some exceptions, and I'd love to see more'). Would you like to beat me upside the head for talking smack about autobiographies? Does anyone want to write an autobiography? (Hint: Bribe your sister.) Tell me all!