Now that everyone seems to be getting a book deal, a straight autobiography just doesn’t cut it anymore. Fortunately, as the number of gratuitous celebrity bios has increased, so too has the originality of books by the writers who are actual professionals in the medium. In the past year, we’ve seen the traditional autobiography in particular veer in several unique directions — not least of which is beyond the grave — so check out these five recent alternatives to the classic genre archetype, and you’ll understand why these authors really deserve a book deal.
The Box: Tales from the Darkroom by Gunter Grass
Nobel laureate Gunter Grass has taken on a new approach to self-examination with this patchwork quilt of fictionalized perspectives. Adopting the individual vantage of each of his eight children, he writes about himself from what he imagines is their views of him as a father and a writer. It’s a highly experimental approach but given Grass’ linguistic dexterity and creativity it comes through with engrossing momentum.
When your autobiography is published a century after your death, it probably means there are a lot of juicy details yet to be exposed — and you won’t be around to suffer the consequences. Taking on all “the side-excursions” that, he claims, “are the life of our life-voyage,” Mark Twain’s newly released autobiography encompasses his Tom Sawyer-esque childhood, political polemics, editorial rants, and acerbic profiles of friends and acquaintances alike (including a particularly harsh portrait of the “grotesque” Rockefellers). And sure enough this first volume release of his planned three-part autobiography has proved to be as popular and incendiary as its author was in life.
Self Portraits: Fictions by Frederic Tuten
Part fiction, part autobiography, Frederic Tuten’s Self Portraits: Fictions deliberately flirts with the fringes of reality to reflect the author’s lifelong manipulation of it — it is his life story both real and romanticized. Like postmodern mischief-makers such as Italo Calvino and Jorge Luis Borges, Tuten’s stories skip between place and time, truth and imagination, without warning. The reader is left to eagerly parse through whimsical stories about runaway circus bears, train rides, and the secret to a successful marriage, all while trying to catch glimpses of the real man behind it all.
My Prizes by Thomas Bernhard
Reliving the success of his literary career through the lens of the prizes he was granted, Thomas Bernhard presents a characteristically sardonic commentary on the industry of accolades. Neither taking himself nor the prizes he received with any seriousness — they are instead viewed as a kind of farcical theater drama that unfolds around him — the Austrian author is nonetheless happy to accept the lifestyle they afford and the prestige they connote. Still, his scathing wit and blase attitude make his recollections all the more hilarious and charmingly dissident.
Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 by Nadine Gordimer
A life in stories is a classic retrospective approach, but Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer’s Life Times: Stories, 1952-2007 is a more like mosaic of the prolific author’s life as seen through her work. Published as a companion to her nonfiction essay anthology Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954-2008, this short story collection reveals the cultural and artistic preoccupations that defined Gordimer as both a writer and a social activist in her native South Africa. Read together, her twofold identity emerges as a cohesive voice, one that is rooted in politics and place as much as in imagination and craft.