Brian Finney speaks of the study of autobiography as a 'yawning gap' in British scholarship. It is also, to judge from myself, a yawning gap in one's own thoughts, which this is a good moment to try to fill. Finney has his own perspective, which is much concerned, first, with the 'truth' factor and attendant perceptual problems; secondly with autobiography as psychotherapy; and thirdly with the (large) function assigned to the reader by an autobiography. There is also an educational theme. Finney relates his deconversion as a teacher, but also as a critic and reader, from a 'New Criticism' faith, and tells us that as a teacher 'I found myself quite naturally making increased use of autobiographical texts in courses in order to encourage students to seek a genuine, particularised point of contact between their lives and their experience of reading literature.' It seems, in practice, though he does not say so, to have been only a partial deconversion. For what he found was that students - and not only students but some critics and scholars too - were in a state of primitive innocence with regard to autobiography such as, since the days of New Criticism, would hardly have been possible for them with regard to the novel. To put it bluntly, they wanted autobiographers to give us a true account of their past life, as well as to be decent and well-behaved citizens. 'Only within the small circle of critics of the genre is it now a commonplace that an autobiography is likely to throw more light on the normally ageing autobiographer than on the earlier self about whom the book is ostensibly written.' Finney describes this critical commonplace, very plausibly, as the 'intrinsic paradox of the genre', and proportions his praise of autobiographers to the degree to which they show themselves aware of it. His theory of the genre is a coherent one and is followed through with a good deal of resourcefulness and intelligent observation. I think there are certain things wrong with his theory, though not with this bit of it, but his is a valuable book and well worth arguing with.
LRB 5 June 1986 | PDF Download