‘Memoirs’ embellish life stories

Author Elizabeth Gilbert speaking at TED in 2009. Photo: Erik Charlton
Author Elizabeth Gilbert speaking at TED in 2009. Photo: Erik Charlton

The popular memoir-cum-movie Eat, Pray, Love sold millions of copies worldwide and spent 187 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list, yet unbeknown to many readers the author’s illustrious world travels were paid for in advance by the publisher.

The 2006 autobiography, which chronicles author Elizabeth Gilbert’s post-divorce journey across Italy, India and Indonesia, is just one of the many examples of provocative autobiography up for discussion at the Facts, Fakes and Fragments public lecture, on tonight (Monday, July 23) at the State Library of South Australia.

Hosted by Flinders University’s Life Narrative Research Group, the free event features a panel of international guests debating the legal, moral and ethical issues surrounding autobiographies and life writing, including memoir hoaxes, fact-checking scandals and social media controversies.

Keynote speakers from the City University of Hong Kong, the University of Tartu, Estonia, the University of Alberta, Canada, and Brunel University in the UK will engage the audience in a lively discussion on what literary hoaxes, new media and ‘stunt memoirs’ (like Gilbert’s) mean for the life narrative genre.

Drawing on popular Australian and international texts, the seminar will explore the ethical dilemmas of life writing and pose questions about contemporary forms of autobiography, such as Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr.

Flinders English and Creative Writing lecturer Dr Kylie Cardell, who is co-chairing the event with Flinders colleague Associate Professor Kate Douglas, said readers often placed “a great deal of trust” in autobiographers without necessarily checking their credibility.

“While life narrative is a really popular sub-genre it can also pose a lot of problems,” Dr Cardell, based in the Department of English, Creative Writing and Australian Studies, said.

“Most people don’t consider whether it’s acceptable for someone to do a stunt in order to write an autobiography but that’s the sort of the thing we want to get people thinking about,” she said.

With the rising popularity of social media, Dr Cardell said it was also important for people to consider how their own “posts, Tweets and uploads” could be considered a form of life writing.

“The new Facebook timeline is a classic example of modern life writing – it shows when we’re born, when we get married, when we have kids, all those sorts of life events that might be documented in autobiographies, and now people are doing it on Facebook without realising it.

“There isn’t really a simple way to think about life narratives so we hope the seminar will stimulate some debate and discussion about what the genre really means to people.”

Facts, Fakes and Fragments will be held at the Hetzel Lecture Theatre, State Library of South Australia, on Monday, July 23, from 6.15pm.

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