From Maggie Nelson to Tara Westover: the rich new vein of life writing

There’s a special frisson in reading a book that claims to be telling the truth and nothing but. A new prize for life writing aims to uncover more of these brave stories.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Until this century, no one in the UK talked about “life writing”. Certainly I’d not heard of the term until I applied to become professor of creative and life writing at Goldsmiths University in 2003; unaware that Virginia Woolf had used in an essay from 1940, I assumed it as a fashionable American import. Nowadays the genre is as much a part of the literary curriculum as fiction or poetry. Genre? In reality, life writing encompasses a whole set of genres: biography, autobiography, memoir, travel writing, reportage, lyric essays, blogs and so on – anything that might loosely be called narrative non-fiction and which promises to tell a story “straight”.

No story is ever straight of course, and some of the most interesting contemporary writers – Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk, for instance – straddle the border between fiction and non-fiction. Still, there’s a special frisson in reading a book that claims to be telling the truth and nothing but. Yes, truth is subjective, memory unreliable, and if it’s a family story you’re narrating your siblings will have a different version of events. Still, a book like Tara Westover’s Educated – about her upbringing as a Mormon in rural Idaho –could never work as a novel. Its power lies in her believing what she says and in making us believe it too.

There’s an exceptionally rich vein of life writing just now, in part because previously taboo subjects (to do with abuse, madness, illegitimacy, etc) are being brought into the open, in part because talented writers have discovered new ways to exploit the form. A list of recent examples might include: Hisham Matar’s The Return, Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? Edouard Louis’s The End of Eddy, Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun, Margo Jefferson’s Negroland. Marion Coutts’s The Iceberg, Keggie Carew’s Dadland and James Lasdun’s Give Me Everything You Have. Go back a decade or two and there’s WG Sebald, Lorna Sage, Joan Didion and Dave Eggers. Further still and the list would include Primo Levi and Nadezhda Mandelstam, De Quincey and Rousseau, all the way back St Augustine. 

Despite this long tradition, the outlets for current life writing are few and so are the awards. That’s why I was delighted when a former MA student of mine, Joanna Munro, offered to fund an annual prize, to celebrate life writing and to encourage those who practise it. First awarded last year, the prize is administered by Spread the Word in association with the Goldsmiths Writers’ Centre. Aimed at writers who don’t yet have an agent and haven’t published a full-length work in print, it’s a more modest affair than the Goldsmiths Prize for fiction. But its ambition is the same: to give writing from outside the mainstream the attention it deserves. As well as offering prize money (£1,500 to the winner, £500 to two runners-up), mentoring sessions and publication on the Spread the Word website, there’s an awards ceremony at which all twelve longlisted writers read from their work.

The entries over the first two years have featured a wide range of voices, including ones we don’t often get to hear: the middle-aged man looking back on his years as a skinhead; the lesbian whose wife has twins; the young Muslim girl sneaking off to a rock concert. Humour is more common than misery, but even when the tone is playful or ironic there’s an intensity to the narration, as if these were stories – of violence, bereavement, injustice, sexual identity, coming of age – that desperately need to be told. Life writing undoubtedly serves a therapeutic function: getting things down on paper is a means of coming to terms with them. But then comes the second step: to make your story available to others. And that involves many of the same skills that readers look for in fiction.

Life writers, more than other kinds of writer, face awkward ethical dilemmas. By exposing realities that friends, lovers, family or governments would prefer to keep hidden, they risk causing hurt and offence. But truth is more honourable than privacy, and candour less corrosive than shame. To write non-fiction that exposes secrets takes courage, and many drafts. But it’s worth the effort. And now at last there’s a prize that rewards such effort and gives life writers the motivation to keep going.

Blake Morrison is professor of creative and life writing at Goldsmiths University. His books include “And When Did You Last See Your Father?”

The judges for the 2019 Spread the Word/Goldsmiths Life Writing Prize are Ros Barber, Colin Grant and Inua Ellams. Entries open from November 5th. For more details click here.