"The Trouble with Life Writing: a New 'Cult of Personality' "

2006. Scrutiny2 11(1): 109-114.

Taking as its starting point D.H. Lawrence’s distinction between literature that engages with the faculty of imaginative sympathy in both the reader and the writer, and literature that indulges in mere gossip, this article considers the habits of mind indicated and encouraged by the proliferation of life writing – more life writers and more life readers, possibly at the expense of fiction – and warns of some insidious implications. It considers the relationship between certain kinds of ‘life writing’ and other manifestations of what the author, borrowing from Lawrence, calls “the cult of personality / celebrity” (such as Reality TV). These, it argues, while offering the illusion of familiarity or intimacy, can in fact erode the reader-viewer’s capacity to interact imaginatively and sympathetically with other individuals. The essay offers, by way of contrast, examples from the fiction of J.M. Coetzee; returning to its opening query regarding generic distinctions, it concludes with remarks about the characteristics that ‘life writing’ and ‘fiction’ can share