Studies in Life Writing: True Stories and Fake Lives–Fiction and Veracity

            Although the lines between fact and fiction, or history and literature, have always been blurry, the repertoire of hybrid literary and cinematic genres has been expanding precipitously over the past few decades. The familiar and often venerable paradoxical forms—historical fiction, autobiographical fiction, the dramatic monologue, confessional poetry—have recently been augmented by such productions as graphic “novels,” autofiction, biofiction, creative non-fiction, biopics, documentary fiction, “As told to . . . ,” “Based on a true story,” and a host of other genres and sub-genres that handle archival or factual material with a great deal of creative license.

           This course will examine the issue of veracity across a spectrum of texts. My major interest is in how purportedly fictional works integrate historical, biographical, and autobiographical material, and how purportedly non-fictional texts deploy the techniques and strategies of fiction, including deliberate misrepresentation–often known as “lying.” Recent research into memory studies, neurology, ethics, the nature of ideology, and more generally the social, political, and aesthetic dimensions of truth will be brought to bear on narrative practice that lays some claim to external reference.

         In addition to weekly postings, at least two brief class presentations on the reading, and a half-hour presentation on the subject of their final assignment, students will prepare a very substantial research paper / book proposal / dissertation prosectus that will go through two full revisions before submission. Mandatory conferences will occur regularly—before all presentations, and in relation to the final assignment.

Primary Texts

Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

Daniel Defoe, Journal of the Plague Year and Robinson Crusoe

Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels

William Makepeace Thackeray, The History of Henry Esmond, Written by Himself

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Truman Capote, In Cold Blood   /   Capote

Gabriel García Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude

Rigoberta Menchu, I Rigoberta Menchu

Rob Reiner, dir. This is Spinal Tap

Robert Zemeckis, Forrest Gump

Anna Deavere Smith, Fires in the Mirror

Dave Eggers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Sarah Polley, Stories We Tell

Colson Whitehead, The Underground Railroad


Michael Lackey, Special Issue of A/B: Autobiography Studies on Biofiction

Philippe Lejeune, The Autobiographical Pact

Timothy Dow Adams, Telling Lies in Modern American Autobiography

Barbara Foley, Telling the Truth: The Theory and Practice of Documentary Fiction

Hillary Chute, Disaster Drawn: Visual Witness, Comics, and Documentary Form

Leigh Gilmore, Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives

Readings from a variety of other resources

Craig Howes has been the Director of the Center for Biographical Research since 1997, the co-editor of Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly since 1994, and a Professor of English since 1980. His book Voices of the Vietnam POWs: Witnesses to Their Fight (Oxford, 1993), a study of the many different lifewriting genres used to represent this group of military and civilian captives, was a Choice Notable Book for 1994. With Miriam Fuchs, he co-edited Teaching Lifewriting Texts (MLA 2007), the first major collection on lifewriting pedagogy, and served as a co-producer and series scholar for six documentaries in the Biography Hawaiʻi television series. A founding member of the International Auto/Biography Association, he has administered IABA-L, with its 1317 subscribers, since 1999.