Self-Fashioning and the Autobiography

The autobiography is a curious means of presenting one’s life story, one that allows for filtration and condensation into a story as engaging as the author (the self-biographer) desires. 

By Serena Ypelaar 

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about autobiographies, in which someone illustrates their own life by selectively exploring episodes of their past. There’s a certain kind of autonomy in fashioning one’s own life story for public consumption, in which we can filter out certain aspects like a sieve. Maybe we don’t want unflattering elements of our lives to reach the eyes and ears of others – but would that be as compelling a story?

If we don’t admit our failures, conflict, setbacks, surprises, embarrassments, and other negative experiences, what shadow of ourselves are we presenting? The phenomenon of “self-fashioning” is all the more relevant to us in the twenty-first century, since Instagram and other social media rule the day. Our Instagram pages are curated galleries of our identity, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg, an infinitesimal slice of our actual lives. They nevertheless create an impression that lasts, especially when we don’t often see someone in person. Short of communicating with them directly, we’re left with what they present to us on social media, a public front that one can’t call balanced. This controlled presentation is like a darkened room that only allows light through tiny cracks – the cracks being the posts we decide to share.

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Author Sophie Kinsella writes authentic protagonists who own their mistakes and suffer embarrassing moments like all of us. Photo: Niklas Maupoix

British novelist Sophie Kinsella recently released a book titled My Not So Perfect Life (2017) which focused on the warped perceptions of our lives and others’ thanks to social media. Kinsella has encouraged readers to share less-than-perfect moments of their lives on Instagram and to celebrate them as a typical facet of the human experience. But the persistent insincerity of Instagram mirrors the ability of formal autobiographies to stretch, filter, and warp the truth. When publishing on social media, we’re sharing only the parts of ourselves that we want the world to see.

Lemony Snicket provides another, albeit exaggerated view into self-fashioning: his Unauthorized Autobiography (2002) is a dramatized example of how the autobiography is a tool of self-invention. Lemony Snicket is in fact a fictitious character (created by American author Daniel Handler) credited with chronicling the lives of the also fictional Baudelaire orphans. Likewise, Snicket’s autobiography represents the lengths that we can go to in order to construct and manipulate identity on a public platform.

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Author Daniel Handler, who also writes under the pseudonym “Lemony Snicket”, created the Unauthorized Autobiography to compile selected information about his fictitious alter ego. Photo: JD Lasica

Whether or not we’re actually writing a formal autobiography, we are authoring our identity every day, inventing our public face based on how we act and what we share. When documenting that identity, we can and should carry an awareness of how we will be perceived by others not only today, but in the future. In the practice of history, for instance, we try to understand people who have predeceased us based on records left behind; it’ll henceforth be interesting to see how historical analysis proceeds in the digital age.

The true self, the one we are when we are alone, only has one audience member: ourselves. Our true identity is beyond communicating with others because there are so many layers to such an identity; so we’re burdened with the responsibility of choosing how we present it to the world. The question is, will we favour authenticity or will we compete on the basis of concealing our very human flaws?

What do you mean, you’ve never judged a book by its cover?

The act of reading books in public is a performative art – we like to convey a certain image with what we’re reading. How we interpret people’s character by what we see them reading is another concern entirely.

By Serena Ypelaar

Let’s not lie to ourselves: we’ve all judged books by their covers.

Something about the imagery that first greets us is so immediately evocative that we’re instantly gripped by emotion.

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So many covers to judge. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

Lurid, bright colours and strong graphics? I feel a bit cornered.

Clean minimalism? My mind feels vulnerable, laid bare but curious.

Elegant script on a damask background? I’m intrigued.

We all have our biases when taking in cover art, because stylistically, we know what we do and don’t like. In fact, when I first received Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone at the age of six, I initially consigned it to the shelf because I wasn’t feeling particularly engaged by the cover. We all know how that ended: I was wrong. It turned out to be my favourite book in the world.

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Rereading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Photo: Serena Ypelaar

There’s another dimension to the idea of judging a book by its cover that goes beyond the self, though. Perhaps it’s because reading is such an intimate pastime, but combine it with our inherent fear of judgement and you have an interesting social phenomenon on your hands.

I’m talking, of course, about reading on public transit.

As a commuter who routinely takes the subway downtown, I cover a lot of ground in reading. I’ve always got a book on me, and I’ve stubbornly rebelled against the e-book ever since its introduction. The result is that other people always see what I’m reading.

As one of my two majors, English lit will always own my mind and heart, so I’m naturally obsessed with 1) what others on the subway are reading and 2) what I must look like reading my books.

Maybe it’s self-absorbed and no one else ever does this, but I often wonder what image I convey based on what I’m reading. Every time I reread Harry Potter, I wonder, “what if someone thinks I’m reading this for the first time ever?” When I read YA (young adult) romances, I don’t tend to flaunt them. And when I read Keats, Austen, Shakespeare, or any classic lit, I hold my book proudly, feeling learned but also slightly disgusted with my self-consciousness.

Reading on the subway is a performative art; whether we register it or not, we’re displaying our interests for bored strangers to observe in an almost Sherlockian fashion. If a grungy hipster were to enter the train reading Nicholas Sparks, for instance, I’d admittedly be taken aback. It makes us somewhat uncomfortable to face up to our inward assumptions about people, which are often based solely on how they look and dress; but their choices in literature are arguably more revealing. We can deduce what kind of stories move them, what fascinates them, or how they react to books in question.

Sure, I bet there are people who can’t be bothered with random people’s opinions of them – but there’s got to be a reason I’ve seen so many middle-aged women reading Fifty Shades of Grey on a Kindle, right? My point is, e-readers can sometimes be a strategic choice, providing anonymity in the case of a controversial read.

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“What are you going to read today, Napoleon?” “Whatever I feel like I wanna read. Gosh!”

As much as we can dwell in others’ scrutiny, though, I believe we can use reading on the subway as an act of empowerment: read whatever we feel like reading, spectators be damned. After all, just because someone’s reading a book, doesn’t mean they approve of it. Regardless of what we’re reading, why we’re reading it, and what we think of it, no one will ever know anything about our experience beyond the book cover and our outward expressions. Those are all superficial assessments – so we might as well just enjoy our commute.