I was really puzzled when I realized the amount of interest (and feedback) I had the other day with a piece written for Publishers Weekly about how autobiographies are classified in different ways in the AngloSaxon world, and in the rest of Europe:
While Americans and Brits expect writers of autobiographies to say the truth, somehow, in France, Spain or Germany, those same books are routinely classified as fiction.
Think of German Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s autobiography “Peeling the Onion”, which was released last week and promoted with a talk between Grass and Norman Mailer in New York, a book reveiling the fact of Grass, the moralist, having been a member of Nazi Waffen SS as a youth, which of course was listed as fiction in Germany last year. Or even more stunning, John Grisham’s The Invisible Man, an essay against the death penalty – again read as a book of fiction in Europe due to the author being a writer of novels primarily.
One of my interview partners for the piece, Bernhard Fetz, a Vienna-based researcher with the Austrian National Library, and a specialist in the genre, pointed to a pretty complex set of traditions beneath the odd differences in classification, as he told me:
“The differences of perception go back to antagonistic traditions in philosophy and cultural history: While Germany, or France, have a mostly idealist tradition in culture, Britain, and hence the U.S., have always had a more pragmatic approach. Essays by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, or Goethe, always combined factual accounts with personal intuitions and selfreflections of the author, giving autobiographies also a political angle by defining a life story as exemplary for a nation. The Anglo-Saxon tradition was instead much more and much earlier influenced by science, and therefore supposed to rely on facts, and less on intentions, Fetz says.
Amazing, I think, and you understand why reading the same book in different cultural surroundings may provide a very different read (and understanding) indeed!