Fiction in the Age of Memoir: The Form of the Novel in the 21st Century
Gemmel, Gina M
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This project argues that the centrality of the memoir as a cultural form has influenced recent fiction and shows that when fiction takes up the form of the memoir, it is able to make a critical comment on the genre that isn't available through memoir itself. Through an examination of a transnational selection of text from Britain, South Africa, South Asia, and the United States, I argue that the logic of the memoir that has been so ubiquitous in non-fiction-in which all narrative is necessarily filtered through individual experience-also finds purchase in recent fiction. While current scholarship on memoir has all but dispensed with the distinction between the fact of memoir and the fiction of the novel, I begin my analysis by showing that the two genres are incommensurate. The memoirist's claim that the genre doesn't amount to a retelling of events with pure fidelity is true, but it's also the case that memoir is necessarily founded on a truth claim. Even when its representation of events is distorted or falsified, those modifications are always relative to an actually existing true account. The novel, on the other hand, has no necessary relationship to true events. Thus, the synthesis of these two genres is impossible in that a memoir bearing no relation to real events would necessarily become a novel through its creation of a fictional world. Likewise, a novel that makes the same claim to truth as a memoir would necessarily become a memoir. Given the incompatibility of the two forms, I ask why fiction would want to mimic the logic of the memoir. I identify four sub-genres of memoir operating in current fiction: the self-therapeutic memoir, the political memoir, the disability memoir, and the trauma memoir. I argue that when novels simulate the form of the memoir through evoking the features of these sub-genres, they are able to make an argument in favor of the genre that isn't possible through memoir itself. Conversely, novels that reflexively take on the features of these sub-genres and the claims of memoir are able to critique the aesthetic and political commitments of the genre in way that it can't do for itself. In each case, whether it makes a claim for or against memoir, fiction offers us a new critical view of the genre that memoir itself hasn't been able to achieve.
south african literature
south asian literature