Autobiography is based on a paradox. It is a generic representation of identity, but identity and genre appear to be antithetical. If we conventionally think of our identity as unique (singular, autonomous and self-made), how then can the presentation of that identity be generic? How, when narrating our lives, can we be both singular and understandable? Does narrating a life presuppose a way of writing (that is, a genre) that will make it recognisable as a story of a life? And how individual can we be, given that we are social animals? We live in families, form attachments and belong to institutions. How much is identity a case of identifying with others?
These questions call to mind the ‘relational turn’ in the literature on life writing in the last couple of decades, whereby selves are not seen as self-sufficient, autonomous and self-determined. Rather, selves exist in relation to others. Such thinking stems in large part from the work of feminist literary critics who critiqued the autonomous self as a patriarchal construct and argued that the female self (and therefore women’s autobiography) developed and operated in a relational way, taking into account the subjectivities of others. More recently, critics such as Nancy K. Miller and Paul John Eakin have argued for the intersubjective nature of subjectivity and auto-biography generally. Relational models of the self suggest that autobiography is a kind of transaction, a telling of others’ stories as much as one’s own.