Moral of the Life Story
- Paul John Eakin (Editor)
The Ethics of Life Writing. Cornell University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Laurie McNeill
Because the modes of life writing are affective and effective genres assumed to tell the “true” story of a real person’s life, they have significant potential to perform social actions, to enact change in the lived world. As a result, they also carry the potential for greater “real life” consequences for their subjects than do other, non-referential genres such as fiction. Yet until recently theorists have been relatively silent about the ethical implications of telling the stories of our selves and / or others. Despite the enormous popularity of auto/biography in its many forms, no code of conduct exists to guide writers, and even legal definitions of privacy and slander may fall short or be unevenly applied. Seeing this gap, Paul John Eakin, a preeminent life writing scholar whose own work on ethical issues in auto/biography has been influential, and David Smith (director of the Poynter Center for the Study of Ethics and American Institutions) mounted a collaborative, interdisciplinary colloquium to explore such issues. The Ethics of Life Writing, edited by Eakin, brings together the papers that grew out of that colloquium, with contributions from scholars working in applied ethics, literary studies, sociology, anthropology, religious studies, and philosophy. This collection, in its breadth and transdisciplinarity, is an extremely useful starting point for further discussions of ethics across the various fields that study and produce life writing.
Clearly Eakin imagines—and will reach—a diverse audience, expanding the purview of life writing beyond “auto/biography studies,” a field traditionally dominated by literary studies. His introduction is accordingly accessible to scholars new to life writing, and situates the collection within all the contributing disciplines. Surprisingly, however, while the introduction does indicate clearly that the collection will not explore legal implications or understandings of the ethical, it does not actually define “ethics,” which appears in this context to mean “good,” or at least the absence of harm, in a particular moral system. As “ethical” and the related term “moral” have different nuances and applications across disciplines, a definition, or even a series of them, would illuminate how these particular contributors and the fields they represent employ them (a problem Craig Howes also raises in his Afterword). Contributor David Parker, reading Edmund Gosse through Charles Taylor, establishes one of the most explicit positions when he explains that “[f]or Taylor, the question What is it good to be? is integral to ethics, not least because our sense of what is worthy of respect or admiration—and the reverse—plays into our conscious deliberations on the question What is it right to do?” This language of the good and the moral, which several contributors engage, raises unanswered questions about what (or whose) moral code is being used to measure these ethical turns, what communities’ values are foundational to this loose definition of the ethical. Though Howes acknowledges that Western “theological master narratives” are “deeply embedded,” the collection’s moralistic foundations remain unexamined.
Turning to both canonical and contemporary works, the writers address a variety of topics, including celebrity biographies, illness and disability narratives, fictionalized life writing, and the potential pitfalls (personal and practical) of writing one’s life and /or another’s. Strengths include pieces by theorist-practitioners Nancy K. Miller and Richard Freadman, who both explore the limits of ethical life-writing at the points where the story and interests of the autobiographer intersect with those of others, who may or may not consent to their part in a published narrative. Alice Wexler presents a case study of how the writing and publishing of a family history, an already ethically act, becomes both complicated and motivated by a genetic disease, Huntington’s, which carries social stigma. Marianne Gullestad analyzes the possibilities for people of colour in an increasingly right-wing, anti-immigrant Europe to tell their stories in the mass media. These two papers, along with Arthur Frank’s examination of life writing about children with disability as “moral non-fiction” and Tom Couser’s essay, reprinted from his book Vulnerable Subjects, form a provocative grouping that read the ethics of telling “counterstories,” narratives (and subjects) that resist dominant cultural scripts.
In his comprehensive afterword, Craig Howes explores connections and overlap between the papers and provides some context from the original colloquium. The questions raised by Howes and all the contributors need to be asked and answered in a number of settings, from the classroom to the writing desk, the publishing house to the scholarly journal. These writers argue for the relevance of life writing as the ideal vehicle for addressing ethics. As Eakin has written elsewhere, he sees ethics as the “deep subject of autobiographical discourse,” a sentiment that contributor John D. Barbour echoes when he suggests that life writing is “the best vehicle in our culture for sustained, probing, and public examination of the process of moral judgment.” This volume sets the stage for such examinations and for informed teaching, writing, and theorizing.
- The Rising Daughter by Susan Fisher
Books reviewed: The Mountain Is Moving: Japanese Women's Lives by Patricia Morley and From My Grandmother's Bedside: Sketches of Postwar Tokyo by Norma Field
- Canadian Theatre: Halcyon Days by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: A Fly on the Curtain by Fred Euringer
- The Hybridity Revolution by Michelle La Flamme
Books reviewed: Other Tongues: Mixed Race Women Speak Out by Adebe DeRango-Adem and Andrea Thompson
- Elizabeth Bishop At Home by Sara Jamieson
Books reviewed: Rare and Commonplace Flowers: The Story of Elizabeth Bishop and Lota de Macedo Soares by Neil K Besner and Carmen L. Oliveira and Divisions of the Heart: Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Memory and Place by Sandra Barry, Gwendolyn Davies, and Peter Sanger
- Diaries that Schmeck by Laurie McNeill
Books reviewed: Must Write: Edna Staebler's Diaries by Christl Verduyn and Beyond Recall by Mary Meigs and Lise Weil
MLA: McNeill, Laurie. Moral of the Life Story. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 19 June 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #188 (Spring 2006). (pg. 159 - 161)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.