chapter  5
22 Pages

Working the borders of genre in postcolonial life-writing

As suggested in the Introduction, autobiography has always proved difficult to classify in anything approaching watertight theoretical terms. Nonetheless, as the existence of the canon suggests, there has been broad agreement in practice about what is and is not included in the genre. Further, as has been seen, Misch’s early definition of ‘the autobiographical pact’ was resurrected and refined by Lejeune towards the end of the second phase of Auto/biography Studies and broadly disseminated during the 1980s in the Anglophone world, where it remains extremely influential. Thus, while lamenting the often slippery variety of their objects of study and debating the hierarchy of sub-forms which constitute their objects of study, for most of its history, critics in the field have operated within parameters consonant with what Derrida describes as the fundamental ‘law of genre’, namely that ‘genres are not to be mixed’.1 However, as Marcus, Gilmore and Anderson variously suggest, as the third phase of Auto/biography Studies develops, postmodernism poses radical problems for the idea of genre, including autobiography.2 The same can be claimed of the effects of feminist interventions in the critical field. If, as has been seen, thematics of subjectivity constitute one important focus for its contestations of the cultural politics of the canon and its formation, issues concerning the forms and borders of auto/biography have proved equally fertile. In the view of many such critics, the conception of autobiography as a properly

coherent genre with its own protocols and boundaries rests on three principal premises. First, the text in question must conform to the terms of the ‘autobiographical pact’. Second, it must demonstrate the integrity of its Subject’s Selfhood. For example, Misch argues that ‘from this element of unity proceed the substantial merits of the genre’.3 Gusdorf concurs, asserting that the autobiographer ‘strains toward a complete and coherent expression of his entire destiny’.4 However, generic integrity is enforced as much by aesthetic consistency as psychological ‘continuity’.5 Thus, according to Olney, the genre has been considered to be properly literary largely insofar as it conforms to the traditional criteria of ‘wholeness, harmony, and radiance’.6 If ‘stylistic harmony’ is crucial in this regard, this is guaranteed above all by the all-important convention of what Gusdorf calls ‘fine logical and rational order’ in the formal arrangement of the development of the protagonist’s subjectivity and identity.7