Notoriously difficult to define, autobiography in the broader sense of the word is used almost synonymously with “life writing” and denotes all modes and genres of telling one’s own life. More specifically, autobiography as a literary genre signifies a retrospective narrative that undertakes to tell the author’s own life, or a substantial part of it, seeking (at least in its classic version) to reconstruct his/her personal development within a given historical, social and cultural framework. While autobiography on the one hand claims to be non-fictional (factual) in that it proposes to tell the story of a ‘real’ person, it is inevitably constructive, or imaginative, in nature and as a form of textual ‘self-fashioning’ ultimately resists a clear distinction from its fictional relatives (autofiction, autobiographical novel), leaving the generic borderlines blurred.
Emerging from the European Enlightenment, with precursors in antiquity, autobiography in its ‘classic’ shape is characterized by autodiegetic, i.e. 1st-person subsequent narration told from the point of view of the present. Comprehensive and continuous retrospection, based on memory, makes up its governing structural and semantic principle. Oscillating between the struggle for truthfulness and creativity, between oblivion, concealment, hypocrisy, self-deception and self-conscious fictionalizing, autobiography renders a story of personality formation, a Bildungsgeschichte. As such, it was epitomized by Rousseau ([1782–89] 1957); Goethe ([1808–31] 1932) and continued throughout the 19th century and beyond (Chateaubriand [1848/50] 2002; Mill 1989, with examples of autobiographical fiction in Moritz ([1785–86] 2006), Dickens ( 2008), Keller ([1854–55] 1981; a second, autodiegetic version [1879–80] 1985) and Proust ([1913–27] 1988). While frequently disclaiming to follow generic norms, its hallmark is a focus on psychological introspection and a sense of historicity, frequently implying, in the instance of a writer’s autobiography, a close link between the author’s life and literary work.
Although 1st-person narrative continues to be the dominant form in autobiography, there are examples of autobiographical writing told in the 3rd person (e.g. Stein 1933; Wolf 1976), in epistolary form (e.g. Plato’s Seventh Letter ca. 353 B.C. ) and in verse (Wordsworth [1799, 1805, 1850] 1979). However, with its ‘grand narrative’ of identity, the classic 1st-person form of autobiography has continued to provide the generic model around which new autobiographical forms of writing and new conceptions of autobiographical selves have taken shape. At the heart of its narrative logic lies the duality of the autobiographical person, divided into ‘narrating I’ and ‘narrated I’, marking the distance between the experiencing and the narrating subject. Whereas the ‘narrated I’ features as the protagonist, the ‘narrating I’, i.e. the 1st-person narrator, ultimately personifies the agent of focalization, the overall position from which the story is rendered, although the autobiographical narrator may temporarily step back to adopt an earlier perspective. A pseudo-static present point of narration as the ultimate end of autobiographical writing is thus implied, rendering the trajectory of autobiographical narrative circular, as it were: the present is both the end and the condition of its narration. However, this apparent circularity is frequently destabilized by the dynamics of the narrative present, as the autobiographer continues to live while composing his/her narrative, thus leaving the perspective open to change unless the position of ‘quasi death’ is adopted, as in Hume’s notoriously stoic presentation of himself as a person of the past (Hume 1778). At the other end of the spectrum of self-positionings as autobiographical narrator, Wordsworth testifies to the impossibility of autobiographical closure in his verse autobiography ([1799, 1805, 1850] 1979). Again and again, he rewrites the same time span of his life. As his life continues to progress, his subject—the “growth of a poet’s mind” ([1850, subtitle] 1979)—perpetually appears to him in a new light, requiring continual revision even though the ‘duration’ (the time span covered) in fact remains the same, thus reflecting the instability of the autobiographical subject as narrator. Accordingly, the later narrative versions bear the mark of the different stages of writing. The narrative present, then, can only ever be a temporary point of view, affording an “interim balance” (de Bruyn  1994) at best, leaving the final vantage point an autobiographical illusion.
With its dual structural core, the autobiographical 1st-person pronoun may be said to reflect the precarious intersections and balances of the “idem” and “ipse” dimensions of personal identity pertaining to spatio-temporal sameness and selfhood as agency (Ricœur 1991). In alternative theoretical terms, it may be related to “three identity dilemmas”: “sameness […] across time,” being “unique” in the face of others; and “agency” (Bamberg 2011: 6–8; Bamberg → Identity and Narration). In a more radical, deconstructive twist of theorizing autobiographical narrative in relation to the issue ofidentity, the 1st-person dualism inherent in autobiography appears as a ‘writing the self’ by another, as a mode of “ghostwriting” (Volkening 2006: 7).
Beyond this pivotal feature of 1st-person duality, further facets of the 1st-person pronoun of autobiography come into play. Behind the narrator, the empirical writing subject, the “Real” or “Historical I” is located, not always in tune with the ‘narrating’ and ‘experiencing I’s’, but considered the ‘real author’ and the external subject of reference. The concept of the “ideological I” suggested by Smith and Watson (eds. 2001) is a more precarious one. It is conceived as an abstract category which, unlike its narrative siblings, is not manifest on the textual level, but in ‘covert operation’ only. According to Smith and Watson, it signifies “the concept of personhood culturally available to the narrator when he tells the story” (eds. 2001: 59–61) and thus reflects the social (and intertextual) embedding of any autobiographical narrative. Reconsidered from the viewpoint of social sciences and cognitive narratology alike, the ‘ideological I’ derives from culturally available generic and institutional genres, structures and institutions of self-representation. Depending on the diverse (inter-)disciplinary approaches to the social nature of the autobiographical self, these are variously termed “master narrative,” “patterns of emplotment,” “schema,” “frame,” cognitive “script” (e.g. Neumann et al. eds. 2008), or even “biography generator” (Biographiegeneratoren, Hahn 1987: 12). What ties this heterogeneous terminology together is the basic assumption that only through an engagement with such socially/culturally prefigured models, their reinscription, can individuals represent themselves as subjects.
The social dimension of autobiography also comes into play on an intratextual level in so far as any act of autobiographical communication addresses another—explicitly so in terms of constructing a narratee, who may be part of the self, a “Nobody,” an individual person, the public, or God as supreme Judge.
At the same time, autobiography stages the self in relation to others on the level of narrative. Apart from personal models or important figures in one’s life story, autobiographies may be centred on a relationship of self and other to an extent that effectively erases the boundaries between auto- and heterobiography (e.g. Gosse  2004; Steedman 1987). In such cases, the (auto)biographical “routing of a self known through its relational others” is openly displayed, undermining the model “of life narrative as a bounded story of the unique, individuated narrating subject” (Smith & Watson eds. 2001: 67). With its several dimensions of social ‘relatedness’, then, autobiographical writing is never an autonomous act of self-reflection, as sociological theorists of (auto-)biography have long argued (e.g. Kohli 1981: 505–16). From a sociological angle, it may be considered a form of social action making sense of personal experience in terms of general relevance (Sloterdijk 1978: 21). Autobiographical patterns of relevance are culturally specific, diverse and subject to historical change, as the history of autobiography with its multitude of forms and writing practices demonstrates.
Autobiography in Historical Perspective
Whereas its origins ultimately date back to antiquity (Roesler 2005), with Augustine’s Confessions ([398–98] 1961) as a prominent ancient landmark, the history of autobiography as a (factual) literary genre and critical term is a much shorter one. In German, the term Selbstbiographie first featured in the collective volume Selbstbiographien berühmter Männer (1796) [Self-Biographies by Famous Men], its editor Seybold claiming Herder as source. Jean Paul called his unfinished and unpublished autobiography Selberlebensbeschreibung [‘description of one’s life by oneself’] ([1818–19] 1987: 16). In English, D’Israeli spoke of “self-biography” in 1796 (95–110), while his critic Taylor suggested “auto-biography” (Nussbaum 1989: 1). These neologisms reflect a concern with a mode of writing only just considered to be a distinct species of (factual) literature at the time; not until the mid-18th century did autobiography separate from historiography as well as from a general notion of biography. The latter, variously coined ‘life’, ‘memoir’ or ‘history’, had not distinguished between what Johnson then seminally parted as “telling his own story” as opposed to “recounting the life of another” ( 1969 and  1963).
The emergence of autobiography as a literary genre and critical term thus coincides with what has frequently been called the emergence of the modern subject around 1800. It evolved as a genre of non-fictional, yet ‘constructed’ autodiegetic narration wherein a self-reflective subject enquires into his/her identity and its developmental trajectory. The autobiographer looks back to tell the story of his/her life from the beginning to the present, tracing the story of its own making—in Nietzsche’s words, “How One Bec[ame] What One Is” ( 1992). As it tends to focus on the autobiographical subject as singular individual, autobiography in the modern sense is thus marked by the secularization and the “temporalization (Historisierung) of experience” (Burke 2011: 13). In contrast, pre-modern spiritual autobiography, which followed the tradition of Augustine’s Confessions and continued well into the 19th century, constructed its subject as exemplum, i.e. as a typical story to be learnt from. Little emphasis was put on life-world particularities (although these tended to acquire their own popular dynamics as in crime confessions). Dividing life into clear-cut phases centred round the moment of conversion, the spiritual autobiographer tells the story of self-renunciation and surrenders to providence and grace (e.g. Bunyan  1962). Its narrative becomes possible only after the key experience of conversion, yielding up a ‘new self’. Accordingly, Augustine commented on his former self with great detachment: “But this was the man I was” ([387–98] 1961: 105). While on the level of story, then, the division in spiritual autobiographies is one of ‘before’ and ‘after’, the level of narrative being ruled by the perspective of ‘after’ almost exclusively: only after and governed by the experience of conversion to Christian belief can the story be told at all. The moment of anagnōrisis and narrative present do not coincide.
The narrative mode of modern autobiography as a literary genre, firmly linked to the notion of the individual, evolved to some extent by propelling the moment of self-recognition towards the narrative present: only at the end of one’s story can it be unfurled from the beginning as a singular life course, staging the autobiographer as subject. The secular self accounts for itself as autonomous agent, (ideally) in charge of itself. This is the narrative logic of autobiography in its ‘classic shape’ that also informed the autobiographical novel. By 1800, the task of autobiography was to represent a unique individual, as claimed by Rousseau for himself: “I am not made like any of those I have seen; I venture to believe that I am not like any of those who are in existence” ( 1957: 1). Most prominently, Goethe explicitly writes of himself as a singular individual embedded in and interacting with the specific constellations of his time ([1808–31] 1932). Autobiography thus focuses on the life of a singular individual within its specific historical context, retracing the “genetic personality development founded in the awareness of a complex interplay between I-and-my-world” (Weintraub 1982: 13). In this sense, it may be seen to represent the “full convergence of all the factors constituting this modern view of the self” (XV). Its central figure is that of a Romantic self-constitution, grounded in memory.
As memory informs autobiography, self-consciously reflected upon since Augustine (Book XX, Confessions), the boundaries between fact and fiction are inevitably straddled, as Goethe’s title Dichtung und Wahrheit (Poetry and Truth) ([1808–31] 1932) aptly suggests. In the face of the inevitable subjectivity (or fallibility) of autobiographical recollection, the creative dimension of memory, and thus autobiography’s quality as verbal/aesthetic fabrication, has come to the fore. In this respect, the history of autobiography as a literary genre is closely interrelated with corresponding forms of autofiction/the autobiographical novel, with no clear dividing lines, even though autobiographical fiction tends to leave “signposts” of its fictionality to be picked up by the reader (Cohn 1999). In any case, autobiography’s temporal linearity and narrative coherence has frequently proved prone to deliberate anachronisms and disruptions—programmatically so in Nabokov (1966). Indeed, by the early 20th century there was an increasing scepticism about the possibility of a cohesive self emerging through autobiographical memory. Modernist writers experimented with fragmentation, subverting chronology and splitting the subject (Woolf 1985, published posthumously; Stein 1933), foregrounding visual and scenic/topographical components, highlighting the role of language (Sartre  2002), conflating auto- and heterobiography or transforming lives into fiction (e.g. Proust [1913–27] 1988).
Critical Paradigms in Historical Perspective
From its critical beginnings, then, autobiography has been inextricably linked to the critical history of subjectivity. In his monumental study of 1907, Misch explicitly surveyed the history of autobiography as a reflection of the trajectory of forms of subjective consciousness ( 1950: 4). He thus acknowledged the historical specificity of forms of autobiographical self-reflection. With his concept of autobiography as “a special genre in literature” and at the same time “an original interpretation of experience” (3–4), Misch aligned with the hermeneutics of Dilthey, who considered autobiography the supreme form of the “understanding of life.” Such understanding involves selection as the autobiographical self takes from the infinite moments of experience those elements that, in retrospect, appear relevant with respect to the entire life course. The past is endowed with meaning in the light of the present. Understanding, according to Dilthey, also involves fitting the individual parts into a whole, ascribing interconnection and causality ( 2002: 221–22). Autobiography thus constructs an individual life course as a coherent, meaningful whole. Even if autobiography’s aspect of re-living experience, of rendering incidents as they were experienced at the time, is taken into account, the superior ‘interpreting’ position of the narrative present remains paramount, turning past events into a meaningful plot, making sense (Sinn) of contingency.
Hermeneutics continued to dominate the theory of autobiography, lagging behind its poetic practices. Gusdorf defined autobiography as “a kind of apologetics or theodicy of the individual being” (1980: 39), yet shifted the emphasis somewhat by prioritizing its literary over its historical function. Anglo-American theories of autobiography similarly tended to focus on such a poetical norm of autobiography as a literary work devoted to “inner truth” (Pascal 1960), with Rousseau’s/Goethe’s autobiography as the recognizable generic model. “Any autobiography that resembles modern autobiographies in structure and content is the modern kind of autobiography”; these are “works like those that modern readers instinctively expect to find when they see Autobiography, My Life, or Memoirs printed across the back of a volume” (Shumaker 1954: 5). Whether hermeneutics- or New Criticism-inspired, the history of autobiography as“art” (Niggl 1988: 6) is seen to culminate around 1800, while its more immediate forerunners are often located in the Renaissance or earlier (e.g. Petrarch  2005; Cellini [1558–66] 1995). With regard to the primary role of the autobiographer as subject of his work, Starobinski argued that his/her singularity was articulated by way of idiosyncratic style (1970,  1983).
Only in the wake of the various social, cultural and linguistic turns of literary and cultural theory since the 1970s did autobiography lose this normative frame. Relying on Freud and Riesman, Neumann established a social psychology-based typology of autobiographical forms. Aligning different modes of narrative with different conceptions of identity, he distinguished between the external orientation of res gestae and memoir, representing the individual as social type, on the one hand, as opposed to autobiography with its focus on memory and identity (1970: esp. 25), on the other hand. Only autobiography aims at personal identity whereas the memoir is concerned with affirming the autobiographer’s place in the world.
More recent research has elaborated on the issue of autobiographical narrative and identity in psychological terms (Bruner 1993) as well as from interdisciplinary angles, probing the inevitability of narrative as constitutive of personal identity (e.g. Eakin 2008) in the wake of “the twin crisis of identity and narrative in the twentieth century” (Klepper 2013: 2) and exploring forms of non-linearity, intermediality or life writing in the new media (Dünne & Moser 2008). The field of life writing as narratives of self—or of various forms of self—has thus become significantly broader, transcending the classic model of autobiographical identity qua coherent retrospective narrative. Yet whatever its theoretical remodelling and practical rewritings, even if frequently subverted in practice, the close nexus between narrative, self/identity, and the genre/practice of autobiography continues to be considered paramount. The underlying assumption concerning autobiography is that of a close, even inextricable connection between narrative and identity, with autobiography the prime generic site of enactment. Moreover, life narrative has even been promoted in modernity to a “general cultural pattern of knowledge” (Braun & Stiegler eds. 2012: 13). (While these approaches tend to address autobiographical writing practices claiming to be or considered non-fictional, their relevance extends to autofictional forms.)
Next to narrative and identity, the role of memory in (autobiographical) self-constructions has been addressed (Olney 1998), in particular adopting cognitivist (e.g. Erll et al., eds. 2003) and psychoanalytical (Pietzcker 2005) angles as well as elaborating the neurobiological foundations of autobiographical memory (Markowitsch & Welzer 2005). From the perspective of ‘natural’ narratology, the experiential aspect of autobiography, its dimension of re-living and reconstructing experience, has been emphasized (Löschnigg 2010: 259).
With memory being both a constitutive faculty and a creative liability, the nature of the autobiographical subject has also been revised in terms of psychoanalytical, (socio‑) psychological or even deconstructive categories (e.g. Holdenried 1991; Volkening 2006). ‘Classic autobiography’ has turned out to be a limited historical phenomenon whose foundations and principles have been increasingly challenged and subverted with respect to poetic practice, poetological reflection and genre theory alike. Even within a less radical theoretical frame, chronological linearity, retrospective narrative closure and coherence as mandatory generic markers have been disqualified, or at least re-conceptualized as structural tools (e.g. Kronsbein 1984). Autobiography’s generic scope now includes such forms as the diary/journal as “serial autobiography” (Fothergill 1974: 152), the “Literary Self-Portrait” as a more heterogeneous and complex literary type (Beaujour  1991) and the essay (e.g. Hof & Rohr eds. 2008). While autobiography has thus gained in formal and thematic diversity, autobiographical identity appears a transitory phenomenon at best. In its most radical deconstructive twist, autobiography is reconceptionalized as a rhetorical figure—“prosopopeia”—that ultimately produces “the illusion of reference” (de Man 1984: 81). De Man thus challenges the very foundations of autobiography in that it is said to create its subject by means of rhetorical language rather than represent the subject. Autobiography operates in complicity with metaphysical notions of self-consciousness, intentionality and language as a means of representation.
Whereas de Man’s deconstruction of autobiography turned out to be of little lasting impact, Lejeune’s theory of the “autobiographical pact” has proven seminal. It rethinks autobiography as an institutionalized communicative act where author and reader enter into a particular ‘contract’—the “autobiographical pact”—sealed by the triple reference of the same proper name. “Autobiography (narrative recounting the life of the author) supposes that there is identity of name between the author (such as s/he figures, by name, on the cover), the narrator of the story and the character who is being talked about” ( 1988: 12; see Genette  1993). The author’s proper name refers to a singular autobiographical identity, identifying author, narrator and protagonist as one, and thus ensures the reading as autobiography. “The autobiographical pact is the affirmation in the text of this identity, referring back in the final analysis to the name of the author on the cover” (14). The tagging of the generic status operates by way of paratextual pronouncements or by identity of names; in contrast, nominal differentiation or content clues might point to fiction as worked out by Cohn (1999).
While Lejeune’s approach reduces the issue of fiction vs non-fiction to a simple matter of pragmatics, he acknowledges its own historical limitations set by the “author function” (Foucault  1979) along with its inextricable ties to the middle-class subject. As an ideal type, Lejeune’s autobiographical pact depends on the emergence of the modern author in the long 18th century as proprietor of his or her own text, guaranteed by modern copyright and marked by the title page/the imprint. In this sense, the history of modern autobiography as literary genre is closely connected to the history of authorship and the modern subject and vice versa, much as the scholarship on autobiography has emerged contemporaneously with the emergence of the modern author (Schönert → Author).
In various ways, then, autobiography has proved prone to be to “slip[ping] away altogether,” failing to be identifiable by “its own proper form, terminology, and observances” (Olney ed. 1980: 4). Some critics have even pondered the “end of autobiography” (e.g. Finck 1999: 11). With critical hindsight, the classic paradigm of autobiography, with its tenets of coherence, circular closure, interiority, etc., is exposed as a historically limited, gendered and socially exclusive phenomenon (and certainly one that erases any clear dividing line between factual and fictional self-writings).
As its classic markers were rendered historically obsolete or ideologically suspicious (Nussbaum 1989), the pivotal role of class (Sloterdijk 1978), and especially gender, as intersectional identity markers within specific historical contexts came to be highlighted, opening innovative critical perspectives on strategies of subject formation in ‘canonical’ texts as well as broadening the field of autobiography studies. While ‘gender sensitive’ studies initially sought to reconstruct a specific female canon, they addressed the issue of a distinct female voice of/in autobiography as more “multidimensional, fragmented” (Jelinek ed. 1986: viii), or subsequently undertook to explore autobiographical selves in terms of discursive self-positionings instead (Nussbaum 1989; Finck 1999: esp. 291–93), tying in with discourse analytical redefinitions of autobiography as a discursive regime of (self-)discipline and regulation that evolved out of changes in communication media and technologies of memory during the 17th and 18th centuries (Schneider 1986). Subsequently, issues of publication, canonization and the historical nexus of gender and (autobiographical) genre became subjects of investigation, bringing into view historical notions of gender and the specific conditions and practices of communication within their generic and pragmatic contexts (e.g. Hof & Rohr eds. 2008). The history of autobiography has come to be more diverse and multi-facetted: thus alternative ‘horizontal’ modes of self, where identity is based on its contextual embedding by way of diarial modes, have come to the fore. With respect to texts by 17th-century autobiographers, the notion of “heterologous subjectivity”—self-writing via writing about another or others—has been suggested (Kormann 2004: 5–6).
If gender studies exposed autobiography’s individualist self as a phenomenon of male self-fashioning, postcolonial theory further challenged its universal validity. While autobiography was long considered an exclusively Western genre, postcolonial approaches to autobiography/ life writing have significantly expanded the corpus of autobiographical writings and provided a perspective which is critical of both the eurocentrism of autobiography genre theory and the concepts of selfhood in operation (e.g. Lionett 1991). In this context, too, the question has arisen as to how autobiography is possible for those who have no voice of their own, who cannot speak for themselves (see Spivak’s ‘subaltern’). Such ‘Writing ordinary lives’, usually aiming at collective identities, poses specific problems: sociological, ethical and even aesthetic (see Pandian 2008).
Following the spatial turn, the concept of ‘eco-autobiography’ also carries potentially wider theoretical significance. By “mapping the self” (Regard ed. 2003), eco-biography designates a specific mode of autobiography that constructs a “relationship between the natural setting and the self,” often aiming at “discover[ing] ‘a new self in nature’” (Perreten 2003), with Wordsworth or Thoreau ( 1948) as frequently cited paradigms. Phrased in less Romantic terms, it locates life courses and self-representations in specific places. In a wider sense, eco- or topographical autobiographies undertake to place the autobiographical subject in terms of spatial or topographical figurations, bringing into play space/topography as a pivotal moment of biographical identity and thus potentially disturbing autobiography’s anchorage in time. In any case, the prioritizing of space over time seems to question, if not to reverse, the dominance of temporality in autobiography and beyond since 1800.
Whatever the markers of difference and semantic foci explored, the notion of autobiography has shifted from literary genre to a broad range of cultural practices that draw on and incorporate a multitude of textual modes and genres. By 2001, Smith and Watson (eds. 2001) were able to list fifty-two “Genres of Life Narrative” by combining formal and semantic features. Among them are narratives of migration, immigration or exile, narratives engaging with ethnic identity and community, prison narratives, illness, trauma and coming-out narratives as much as celebrity memoirs, graphic life writing and forms of Internet self-presentation. These multiple forms and practices produce, or allow critics to freshly address, new ‘subject formations’ within specific historical and cultural localities. Finally, scholars have engaged with the role of aesthetic practices that “turn ‘life itself’ into a work of art,” developing “zoegraphy as a radically post-anthropocentric approach to life narrative” (van den Hengel 2012: 1), part of a larger attempt to explore auto/biographical figures in relation to concepts of “posthumanism.”
Whereas autobiography, as a term almost synonymous with life writing, signifies a broad range of ‘practices of writing the self’ including pre-modern forms and epistolary or diarial modes, ‘classic’ autobiography hinges upon the notion of the formation of individual identity by means of narrative. With its historical, psychological and philosophical dimensions, it differs from related forms such as memoirs and res gestae. Memoirs locate a self in the world, suggesting a certain belonging to, or contemporaneity with, and being in tune with the world (Neumann 1970). However, all these forms imply a certain claim to non-fictionality which, to a certain degree only, sets them off from autobiographical fiction/the autobiographical novel, with highly blurred boundaries and intense generic interaction (Müller 1976; Löschnigg 2006).
Biography is used today both as a term synonymous with “life writing” (hence the journal Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly1978ff.) as well as denoting heterobiography, i.e. the narrative of the life of another. (The term “life writing“ also includes heterobiography.) While in narratological terms experimental forms of autobiography may collapse the conventional 1st- vs 3rd-person boundary (§ 2), viewing the self as other, heterobiography has generated its own distinct poetics and theory, extending from an agenda of resemblance as “the impossible horizon of biography” (“In biography, it is resemblance that must ground identity”; Lejeune  1988: 24) to specific considerations of modes of representing the biographical subject, of biographical understanding, or knowledge, and the ethics of heterobiography (Eakin ed. 2004; Phelan → Narrative Ethics).
Topics for Further Investigation
The intersections of hetero- and autobiography remain to be further explored. Significantly, ‘natural’ narratology’s theorizing of vicarious narration and the evolution of FID (Fludernik 1996) makes the limits of non-fictional heterodiegetic narration discernible: in its conventional form and refraining from speculative empathy, it must ultimately fail to render “experientiality” or resort to fiction, while autobiography’s experiential dimension invites further investigation (Löschnigg 2010). Additional study of the experimental interactions of life writing with no clear dividing lines between auto- and hetero-biography might yield results with interdisciplinary repercussions.
Finally, the field of self-representation and life writing in the new media calls for more research from an interdisciplinary angle.
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For other uses, see Essay (disambiguation).
For a description of essays as used by Wikipedia editors, see Wikipedia:Essays.
"Essai" redirects here. For other uses, see Essai (disambiguation).
An essay is, generally, a piece of writing that gives the author's own argument — but the definition is vague, overlapping with those of a paper, an article, a pamphlet, and a short story. Essays have traditionally been sub-classified as formal and informal. Formal essays are characterized by "serious purpose, dignity, logical organization, length," whereas the informal essay is characterized by "the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humor, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme," etc.
Essays are commonly used as literary criticism, political manifestos, learned arguments, observations of daily life, recollections, and reflections of the author. Almost all modern essays are written in prose, but works in verse have been dubbed essays (e.g., Alexander Pope's An Essay on Criticism and An Essay on Man). While brevity usually defines an essay, voluminous works like John Locke's An Essay Concerning Human Understanding and Thomas Malthus's An Essay on the Principle of Population are counterexamples. In some countries (e.g., the United States and Canada), essays have become a major part of formal education. Secondary students are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills; admission essays are often used by universities in selecting applicants, and in the humanities and social sciences essays are often used as a way of assessing the performance of students during final exams.
The concept of an "essay" has been extended to other mediums beyond writing. A film essay is a movie that often incorporates documentary filmmaking styles and focuses more on the evolution of a theme or idea. A photographic essay covers a topic with a linked series of photographs that may have accompanying text or captions.
An essay has been defined in a variety of ways. One definition is a "prose composition with a focused subject of discussion" or a "long, systematic discourse". It is difficult to define the genre into which essays fall. Aldous Huxley, a leading essayist, gives guidance on the subject. He notes that "the essay is a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything", and adds that "by tradition, almost by definition, the essay is a short piece". Furthermore, Huxley argues that "essays belong to a literary species whose extreme variability can be studied most effectively within a three-poled frame of reference". These three poles (or worlds in which the essay may exist) are:
- The personal and the autobiographical: The essayists that feel most comfortable in this pole "write fragments of reflective autobiography and look at the world through the keyhole of anecdote and description".
- The objective, the factual, and the concrete particular: The essayists that write from this pole "do not speak directly of themselves, but turn their attention outward to some literary or scientific or political theme. Their art consists of setting forth, passing judgment upon, and drawing general conclusions from the relevant data".
- The abstract-universal: In this pole "we find those essayists who do their work in the world of high abstractions", who are never personal and who seldom mention the particular facts of experience.
Huxley adds that the most satisfying essays "...make the best not of one, not of two, but of all the three worlds in which it is possible for the essay to exist."
The word essay derives from the French infinitive essayer, "to try" or "to attempt". In English essay first meant "a trial" or "an attempt", and this is still an alternative meaning. The Frenchman Michel de Montaigne (1533–1592) was the first author to describe his work as essays; he used the term to characterize these as "attempts" to put his thoughts into writing, and his essays grew out of his commonplacing. Inspired in particular by the works of Plutarch, a translation of whose Œuvres Morales (Moral works) into French had just been published by Jacques Amyot, Montaigne began to compose his essays in 1572; the first edition, entitled Essais, was published in two volumes in 1580. For the rest of his life, he continued revising previously published essays and composing new ones. Francis Bacon's essays, published in book form in 1597, 1612, and 1625, were the first works in English that described themselves as essays. Ben Jonson first used the word essayist in English in 1609, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.
English essayists included Robert Burton (1577–1641) and Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682). In France, Michel de Montaigne's three volume Essais in the mid 1500s contain over 100 examples widely regarded as the predecessor of the modern essay. In Italy, Baldassare Castiglione wrote about courtly manners in his essay Il Cortigiano. In the 17th century, the JesuitBaltasar Gracián wrote about the theme of wisdom. During the Age of Enlightenment, essays were a favored tool of polemicists who aimed at convincing readers of their position; they also featured heavily in the rise of periodical literature, as seen in the works of Joseph Addison, Richard Steele and Samuel Johnson. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Edmund Burke and Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote essays for the general public. The early 19th century, in particular, saw a proliferation of great essayists in English – William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt and Thomas de Quincey all penned numerous essays on diverse subjects. In the 20th century, a number of essayists tried to explain the new movements in art and culture by using essays (e.g., T.S. Eliot). Whereas some essayists used essays for strident political themes, Robert Louis Stevenson and Willa Cather wrote lighter essays. Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, and Charles du Bos wrote literary criticism essays.
Main article: Zuihitsu
As with the novel, essays existed in Japan several centuries before they developed in Europe with a genre of essays known as zuihitsu — loosely connected essays and fragmented ideas. Zuihitsu have existed since almost the beginnings of Japanese literature. Many of the most noted early works of Japanese literature are in this genre. Notable examples include The Pillow Book (c. 1000), by court lady Sei Shōnagon, and Tsurezuregusa (1330), by particularly renowned Japanese Buddhist monk Yoshida Kenkō. Kenkō described his short writings similarly to Montaigne, referring to them as "nonsensical thoughts" written in "idle hours". Another noteworthy difference from Europe is that women have traditionally written in Japan, though the more formal, Chinese-influenced writings of male writers were more prized at the time.
Forms and styles
This section describes the different forms and styles of essay writing. These forms and styles are used by an array of authors, including university students and professional essayists.
Cause and effect
The defining features of a "cause and effect" essay are causal chains that connect from a cause to an effect, careful language, and chronological or emphatic order. A writer using this rhetorical method must consider the subject, determine the purpose, consider the audience, think critically about different causes or consequences, consider a thesis statement, arrange the parts, consider the language, and decide on a conclusion.
Classification and division
Classification is the categorization of objects into a larger whole while division is the breaking of a larger whole into smaller parts.
Compare and contrast
Compare and contrast essays are characterized by a basis for comparison, points of comparison, and analogies. It is grouped by the object (chunking) or by point (sequential). The comparison highlights the similarities between two or more similar objects while contrasting highlights the differences between two or more objects. When writing a compare/contrast essay, writers need to determine their purpose, consider their audience, consider the basis and points of comparison, consider their thesis statement, arrange and develop the comparison, and reach a conclusion. Compare and contrast is arranged emphatically.
Descriptive writing is characterized by sensory details, which appeal to the physical senses, and details that appeal to a reader's emotional, physical, or intellectual sensibilities. Determining the purpose, considering the audience, creating a dominant impression, using descriptive language, and organizing the description are the rhetorical choices to consider when using a description. A description is usually arranged spatially but can also be chronological or emphatic. The focus of a description is the scene. Description uses tools such as denotative language, connotative language, figurative language, metaphor, and simile to arrive at a dominant impression. One university essay guide states that "descriptive writing says what happened or what another author has discussed; it provides an account of the topic".Lyric essays are an important form of descriptive essays.
In the dialectic form of the essay, which is commonly used in philosophy, the writer makes a thesis and argument, then objects to their own argument (with a counterargument), but then counters the counterargument with a final and novel argument. This form benefits from presenting a broader perspective while countering a possible flaw that some may present. This type is sometimes called an ethics paper.
An exemplification essay is characterized by a generalization and relevant, representative, and believable examples including anecdotes. Writers need to consider their subject, determine their purpose, consider their audience, decide on specific examples, and arrange all the parts together when writing an exemplification essay.
An essayist writes a familiar essay if speaking to a single reader, writing about both themselves, and about particular subjects. Anne Fadiman notes that "the genre's heyday was the early nineteenth century," and that its greatest exponent was Charles Lamb. She also suggests that while critical essays have more brain than the heart, and personal essays have more heart than brain, familiar essays have equal measures of both.
A history essay sometimes referred to as a thesis essay describes an argument or claim about one or more historical events and supports that claim with evidence, arguments, and references. The text makes it clear to the reader why the argument or claim is as such.
A narrative uses tools such as flashbacks, flash-forwards, and transitions that often build to a climax. The focus of a narrative is the plot. When creating a narrative, authors must determine their purpose, consider their audience, establish their point of view, use dialogue, and organize the narrative. A narrative is usually arranged chronologically.
An argumentative essay is a critical piece of writing, aimed at presenting objective analysis of the subject matter, narrowed down to a single topic. The main idea of all the criticism is to provide an opinion either of positive or negative implication. As such, a critical essay requires research and analysis, strong internal logic and sharp structure. Its structure normally builds around introduction with a topic's relevance and a thesis statement, body paragraphs with arguments linking back to the main thesis, and conclusion. In addition, an argumentative essay may include a refutation section where conflicting ideas are acknowledged, described, and criticized. Each argument of argumentative essay should be supported with sufficient evidence, relevant to the point.
An economic essay can start with a thesis, or it can start with a theme. It can take a narrative course and a descriptive course. It can even become an argumentative essay if the author feels the need. After the introduction, the author has to do his/her best to expose the economic matter at hand, to analyze it, evaluate it, and draw a conclusion. If the essay takes more of a narrative form then the author has to expose each aspect of the economic puzzle in a way that makes it clear and understandable for the reader
A reflective essay is an analytical piece of writing in which the writer describes a real or imaginary scene, event, interaction, passing thought, memory, or form — adding a personal reflection on the meaning of the topic in the author's life. Thus, the focus is not merely descriptive. The writer doesn’t just describe the situation, but revisits the scene with more detail and emotion to examine what went well, or reveal a need for additional learning — and may relate what transpired to the rest of the author's life.
Other logical structures
The logical progression and organizational structure of an essay can take many forms. Understanding how the movement of thought is managed through an essay has a profound impact on its overall cogency and ability to impress. A number of alternative logical structures for essays have been visualized as diagrams, making them easy to implement or adapt in the construction of an argument.
Main article: Free response
In countries like the United States and the United Kingdom, essays have become a major part of a formal education in the form of free response questions. Secondary students in these countries are taught structured essay formats to improve their writing skills, and essays are often used by universities in these countries in selecting applicants (seeadmissions essay). In both secondary and tertiary education, essays are used to judge the mastery and comprehension of the material. Students are asked to explain, comment on, or assess a topic of study in the form of an essay. In some courses, university students must complete one or more essays over several weeks or months. In addition, in fields such as the humanities and social sciences, mid-term and end of term examinations often require students to write a short essay in two or three hours.
In these countries, so-called academic essays also called papers, are usually more formal than literary ones. They may still allow the presentation of the writer's own views, but this is done in a logical and factual manner, with the use of the first person often discouraged. Longer academic essays (often with a word limit of between 2,000 and 5,000 words) are often more discursive. They sometimes begin with a short summary analysis of what has previously been written on a topic, which is often called a literature review.
Longer essays may also contain an introductory page that defines words and phrases of the essay's topic. Most academic institutions require that all substantial facts, quotations, and other supporting material in an essay be referenced in a bibliography or works cited page at the end of the text. This scholarly convention helps others (whether teachers or fellow scholars) to understand the basis of facts and quotations the author uses to support the essay's argument and helps readers evaluate to what extent the argument is supported by evidence, and to evaluate the quality of that evidence. The academic essay tests the student's ability to present their thoughts in an organized way and is designed to test their intellectual capabilities.
One of the challenges facing universities is that in some cases, students may submit essays purchased from an essay mill (or "paper mill") as their own work. An "essay mill" is a ghostwriting service that sells pre-written essays to university and college students. Since plagiarism is a form of academic dishonesty or academic fraud, universities and colleges may investigate papers they suspect are from an essay mill by using plagiarism detection software, which compares essays against a database of known mill essays and by orally testing students on the contents of their papers.
Magazine or newspaper
Main article: Long-form journalism
Essays often appear in magazines, especially magazines with an intellectual bent, such as The Atlantic and Harpers. Magazine and newspaper essays use many of the essay types described in the section on forms and styles (e.g., descriptive essays, narrative essays, etc.). Some newspapers also print essays in the op-ed section.
Employment essays detailing experience in a certain occupational field are required when applying for some jobs, especially government jobs in the United States. Essays known as Knowledge Skills and Executive Core Qualifications are required when applying to certain US federal government positions.
A KSA, or "Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities," is a series of narrative statements that are required when applying to Federal government job openings in the United States. KSAs are used along with resumes to determine who the best applicants are when several candidates qualify for a job. The knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary for the successful performance of a position are contained on each job vacancy announcement. KSAs are brief and focused essays about one's career and educational background that presumably qualify one to perform the duties of the position being applied for.
An Executive Core Qualification, or ECQ, is a narrative statement that is required when applying to Senior Executive Service positions within the US Federal government. Like the KSAs, ECQs are used along with resumes to determine who the best applicants are when several candidates qualify for a job. The Office of Personnel Management has established five executive core qualifications that all applicants seeking to enter the Senior Executive Service must demonstrate.
A film essay (or "cinematic essay") consists of the evolution of a theme or an idea rather than a plot per se, or the film literally being a cinematic accompaniment to a narrator reading an essay. From another perspective, an essay film could be defined as a documentary film visual basis combined with a form of commentary that contains elements of self-portrait (rather than autobiography), where the signature (rather than the life story) of the filmmaker is apparent. The cinematic essay often blends documentary, fiction, and experimental film making using tones and editing styles.
The genre is not well-defined but might include propaganda works of early Soviet parliamentarians like Dziga Vertov, present-day filmmakers including Chris Marker,Michael Moore (Roger & Me (1989), Bowling for Columbine (2002) and Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004)), Errol Morris (The Thin Blue Line (1988)), Morgan Spurlock (Supersize Me: A Film of Epic Portions) and Agnès Varda. Jean-Luc Godard describes his recent work as "film-essays". Two filmmakers whose work was the antecedent to the cinematic essay include Georges Méliès and Bertolt Brecht. Méliès made a short film (The Coronation of Edward VII (1902)) about the 1902 coronation of King Edward VII, which mixes actual footage with shots of a recreation of the event. Brecht was a playwright who experimented with film and incorporated film projections into some of his plays.Orson Welles made an essay film in his own pioneering style, released in 1974, called F for Fake, which dealt specifically with art forger Elmyr de Hory and with the themes of deception, "fakery," and authenticity in general. These are often published online on video hosting services.
David Winks Gray's article "The essay film in action" states that the "essay film became an identifiable form of filmmaking in the 1950s and '60s". He states that since that time, essay films have tended to be "on the margins" of the filmmaking the world. Essay films have a "peculiar searching, questioning tone ... between documentary and fiction" but without "fitting comfortably" into either genre. Gray notes that just like written essays, essay films "tend to marry the personal voice of a guiding narrator (often the director) with a wide swath of other voices". The University of Wisconsin Cinematheque website echoes some of Gray's comments; it calls a film essay an "intimate and allusive" genre that "catches filmmakers in a pensive mood, ruminating on the margins between fiction and documentary" in a manner that is "refreshingly inventive, playful, and idiosyncratic".
In the realm of music, composer Samuel Barber wrote a set of "Essays for Orchestra," relying on the form and content of the music to guide the listener's ear, rather than any extra-musical plot or story.
A photographic essay strives to cover a topic with a linked series of photographs. Photo essays range from purely photographic works to photographs with captions or small notes to full-text essays with a few or many accompanying photographs. Photo essays can be sequential in nature, intended to be viewed in a particular order — or they may consist of non-ordered photographs viewed all at once or in an order that the viewer chooses. All photo essays are collections of photographs, but not all collections of photographs are photo essays. Photo essays often address a certain issue or attempt to capture the character of places and events.
In the visual arts, an essay is a preliminary drawing or sketch that forms a basis for a final painting or sculpture, made as a test of the work's composition (this meaning of the term, like several of those following, comes from the word essayJA's meaning of "attempt" or "trial").
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