Narrative Distance in Life Writing

Life writing (memoirs, essays, autobiographies and biographies, auto-theory, etc.) is inherently personal in nature. These writings focus on personal stories that can be confronting for the reader to read, AND for the writer to write. They intend to communicate some form of personal, human truth.

But what role does narrative distance play in these works? Does life writing have to be first-person perspective that recounts events exactly as they transpired? Or, can a writer distance themselves from the writing and still achieve the same intimacy of life writing?

A range of texts could be discussed here; texts that approach life writing very differently.

Some examples could include clear-cut autobiographies written in the first-person (of which there are many), or works of fiction where a made-up character represents a real person (semi-autobiographical works, like Jane Eyre or Frost in May). A more out-there example could be cook books — these often express personal stories under the guise of recipes. Travel writing, too, can often be an inadvertent style of writing about the self whilst maintaining some narrative distance.

  • Good topic! If I may, The Essays, of Michel de Montaigne could, perhaps, be a relevant example. Indeed, the goal of Montaigne was to depict himself in such a way every reader could find a bit of himself through the pages. In the preface, he wrote: “I am myself the matter of this book […] Every man has within himself the entire human condition”. Montaigne, under the cover of an autobiographical work, tackles, however, many subjects, whether it is social analysis ("Of Cannibals", for instance) or philosophical thoughts, through references to many ancient thinkers. The fact that it is a rather old book (1570-1592) and a French one, may also stress another aspect of narrative distance. – Gavroche 4 years ago

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