Several weeks ago I asked my Twitter followers and Facebook friends whether they preferred biographies, autobiographies, or memoirs, and I got answers all across the board. I said I'd eventually follow up with my own response to the question.
So which do I prefer, and why?
First I should probably define some terms, or at least define them as I'll use them. The difference between biography and autobiography/memoir is obvious: biography is written about a subject by someone else. A biography is a secondhand account (with its attendant benefits and drawbacks). An autobiography I see as a firsthand recounting of a full life. A memoir I see as a firsthand recounting of isolated events in a life. An autobiography is a panoramic view, a memoir is a snapshot.
Of the three, my preference is memoir (with some caveats). I typically prefer memoir/autobiography to biography because of the subjects I'd be interested to read about, they are all usually competent enough to tell their own stories. There are few things worse than reading a secondhand account when a firsthand one is more interesting. (For example, I read a biography by G.K. Chesterton, and while it was decent in presenting the facts, I found myself thinking, I'd much rather be reading Chesterton.) Unless the subject is not a competent writer and still has a fascinating story, I would prefer the story in a person's own words.
I prefer memoir to autobiography because it's easier for a memoir to be the "best parts" version of a story. Not every life is interesting the whole way through, at least as the subject of a book is concerned. (Chesterton, again, says each of us is a "Great Might-Not-Have-Been," and there's thus a sort of romance just about being born--but, alas, a romance worth being lived, not necessarily worth reading about.) I like the snapshot approach because it (ideally) gets straight to the good story without the uninteresting bits. You might be able to consider an autobiography as the entire X-Men movie franchise; memoir is just X-Men 2.
I did mention that I have some caveats. First, for memoir to work in the way I like best, the author has to be a competent writer. We live in the age of the "celebrity memoir," and these, I find, give the memoir genre a bad rap. Also, when I was part of a writing group, many of the participants were writing memoirs, but I got the impression that they were doing so because writing memoirs was "easier," that is, it didn't require additional research. What subject does one know better than oneself?
Well, that leads into the second caveat: a memoir should offer some critical distance. I realize we are all biased as we write and especially as we remember, but I think the best memoir writing enjoys a long period of gestation. The events recounted didn't happen last week; they have been digested, regurgitated, and digested again. One of the insights I drew from Pope Benedict XVI's first Jesus of Nazareth book is his explanation of the Gospel of John as a sort of "holy reflection." (Yes, I realize John falls more in the biography category, but the principle of distance and reflection remains the same.) John was the last Gospel written, and it bears the marks of Jesus' words being carefully remembered, considered, and reflected upon over a lifetime. Similarly, I appreciated This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff because it bore this sort of long remembrance. In a sense, the author has not done less research but more--and it has taken his entire life.
Finally, a good memoir should have a hook. For most this is a good story, something unique that happened that makes the memoir worth reading. For others, this is simply the writing itself, the love of language expressed in the telling of it. The very best memoirs, I think, include both of these hooks. For example, James Thurber's memoir My Life and Hard Times (I consider this memoir even though I believe he calls this a book of autobiographical sketches) is interesting both in terms of the stories he tells (read "Draftboard Nights") and the way he tells them.
And the caveat surrounding all of this: there are always exceptions. I've read fascinating biographies, dull memoirs, and accounts of lives that really are eventful start to finish. But taking the best of each genre and setting them side by side, I'd probably choose memoir.
Which would you choose, and why?