Deb’s question today is: Which do you prefer? Biographies written about someone? Or Autobiographies written by the actual person (and/or ghost-writer)?
I’m not sure I can decide which I prefer.
I read both biographies and autobiographies and they both have their pros and cons. Both can be biased and written to present a certain portrait, either flattering or otherwise. Biographers are trying to reconstruct a person’s life from different sources, including letters, diaries, and personal accounts. The end result may seem as if it is factual, but it is an interpretation and quasi-fictional. I don’t like biographies that make general assumptions about a person’s thoughts and motives based on speculation and the author’s own views and impressions.
Inevitably neither a biography nor an autobiography can retell the whole of a person’s life so there has to be a selection and the skill is deciding what to include and what to leave out. This does of course mean that secrets/events a person doesn’t want reveal may be revealed by a biographer with a particular axe to grind or be left out to paint a more flattering portrait.
A good example of a biography is Jane Austen: a Life by Claire Tomalin. It’s well researched, detailed, based on documentary evidence such as diaries and Jane Austen’s own letters.
Memoirs are what a person remembers about their life. Generally they’re more about a particular part of a life rather than the whole. I’ve recently read Somewhere Towards the End by Diana Athill, which is a good example of an autobiography/memoir. It won the Costa Biography Award in 2008 and I think the judges comment sums up what makes a good autobiography/biography:
A perfect memoir of old age – candid, detailed, charming, totally lacking in self-pity or sentimentality and, above all, beautifully, beautifully written.