The Trouble With Autobiography

Novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux examines other authors’ autobiographies to prove why this piece will suffice for his

Autobiographies invariably distort, insists author Paul Theroux, at his home in Hawaii. (Susan Seubert)
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I am more inclined to adopt the Graham Greene expedient. He wrote a highly personal preface to each of his books, describing the circumstances of their composition, his mood, his travel; and then published these collected prefaces as Ways of Escape. It is a wonderful book, even if he did omit his relentless womanizing.

The more I reflect on my life, the greater the appeal of the autobiographical novel. The immediate family is typically the first subject an American writer contemplates. I never felt that my life was substantial enough to qualify for the anecdotal narrative that enriches autobiography. I had never thought of writing about the sort of big talkative family I grew up in, and very early on I developed the fiction writer’s useful habit of taking liberties. I think I would find it impossible to write an autobiography without invoking the traits I seem to deplore in the ones I’ve described—exaggeration, embroidery, reticence, invention, heroics, mythomania, compulsive revisionism, and all the rest that are so valuable to fiction. Therefore, I suppose my Copperfield beckons.

Paul Theroux’s soon to be published The Tao of Travel is a travel anthology.


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