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Are You Episodic or Narrative?

August 8, 2010

Sven Birkerts (2008), The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again


Q: What is the difference between autobiography and memoir?

A: Time. Or rather, according to Sven Birkerts, the way time is used.


In The Art of Time in Memoir, Birkerts contrasts the dull chronicling of events over a straight time line in autobiographies with the glory of memoirs that search for patterns and connections by using a double vantage point – then and now. Memoir portrays life as it is reconstituted by memory – the stories that give shape to the writer’s life. Memoir is far more selective than autobiography because it serves themes rather than events.  Common themes include struggles with parents, the drama of separation, the growth of independence, responding to trauma, and reconciliation.


Most of the book is an analysis of a dozen or so memoirs to show how writers have dealt with these themes and how they have used the double time frame in very different ways. Some use it sparingly in order to achieve greater immersion in a past period. I have just read Jamaica Kincaid’s Annie John, an example of this approach, and will review it in a later post. Other writers use greater alternation in time frame to bring out patterns and realisations, such as Rupert Thomson in This Party’s Got to Stop (see previous post of 31 July 2010).


The question that jumps out at me is: are we fooling ourselves? I’ve referred previously to narrative fallacy – our tendency to find patterns in random sets of observations. In an article in the Wall Street Journal last year, Lee Siegel takes up a distinction made by Galen Strawson: “Are you a Narrative or an Episodic personality? In other words, do you believe that your life tells a meaningful story? Or do you think that you live, like Huck Finn and every other picaresque hero, from isolated minute to isolated minute—episode to episode—and that far from adding up to a coherent tale, your life is ’a tale told by an idiot… signifying nothing’?”


Siegel’s article is a passionate attack on the narrative viewpoint. Episodics “seem to have a firmer grasp of reality’s fluid nature. Rather than experiencing life as a continuous thread of related experiences, Episodics consider their ‘self’ to be in a state of continuous flux. What happened to them a year ago happened to a different person than the person they are now—the past has no bearing on present experience.” For him, all the great novelists are episodic (Twain, Hemmingway, Faulkner, Miller, Bellow, Salinger,  Kerouac, Vonnegut), and the recent rise of the grandly themed novel is to be lamented. He blames Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections.


But hang on a bit. How can we decide which is the correct viewpoint when both chaos and meaning inhere in our lives? Siegel has created a false dichotomy by taking the two endpoints of a continuum. Our lives are governed by both random chance and meaningful connections, and the mix depends on the person. We all know people who are close to the chaotic end and others whose lives present a more coherent picture. Sure, in many ways I am a different person now to the one I was last year, but does that mean the past has no bearing on present experience?


Yet Siegel’s thesis is useful. It alerts the memoirist to the danger of imposing patterns and meaning where none exist. Likewise, we can read memoirs more critically if we keep the episodic-narrative spectrum in mind. Birkerts may be too accepting of a totally narrative approach, seeing memoir as cherry-picking the bits of a life that give it meaning, so that the random episodes are left out.


Nevertheless, I enjoyed Birkerts’ book immensely, and it is a must for memoirists and avid memoir readers. It gave me a much deeper understanding of how the writer can use time, and the books he uses to illustrate his arguments provide a reading list of some of the best memoirs currently available.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. Claire Wood permalink
    August 18, 2010 8:52 pm

    Wow, Bryce, what a thought provoking post! I’m going to have to re-read it and then probably read the texts to which you refer. I do agree with you about the continuum between episodic and narrative, but I also agree with some of Siegel as you present his ideas. His/your (?) list of the episodic novels included so many of the ‘great’ writers, but within each of their episodic novels lies a deeper narrative structure.

  2. Bryce permalink*
    August 19, 2010 1:02 pm

    Thanks, Claire. The list of ‘episodic’ novels is Siegel’s, not mine. I have now revised the post above to include a link to his article and also to the original article by Galen Strawson, which is much more thoughtful and nuanced than Siegel’s. Strawson’s aim is to refute both the empirical thesis that we live our lives narratively and the ethical thesis that we ought to do so. He sees both narrative and episodic as valid, but being an episodic person he resents the current narrative paradigm and highlights the glories of an episodic life. Siegel’s aim is more provocative – to assert that episodic is the only way to live, and write about, our lives. It’s a black and white, contrarian attack, very useful in making us question things we have taken for granted and developing our own ideas. I now have more respect for the episodic, believing that both narrative and episodic entwine in our lives, and that we shouldn’t underrate either.

  3. August 20, 2010 5:51 am

    beautiful post. mulling it over. thanks.


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