Literary Arts

Memoir: recollection without tranquility?

Literary tastes lead to literary debates. Readers disagree about subjects and treatments, and one reader’s favorite book is the object of another’s scorn. It is ever thus, and should be; lively opinions make for better, more attentive reading. But what about entire genres? Even those who don’t love poetry read it, and validate its impact on prose. No poet has argued that we ought to stop writing or reading biography. So what does it mean when readers turn on a medium of self-expression to argue that it should be staunched? What if the medium in question seems to possess irrefutable claims to legitimacy? Can there be a greater claim on the essence of self-expression than that made by memoir? How could anyone question this critical darling and publishing powerhouse of our time?

And yet someone has. A lot of people have. And in the New York Times, no less. On January 11, Staff Editor Neil Genzlinger denounced the seeming avalanche of memoirs that now glut the remainder tables and, to be fair, also fill some best-seller slots at bookstores. While his is neither the first nor the most virulent attack, it’s worth noting that he has chosen as his examples four recent memoirs from writers one might expect to do a responsible job: a nationally known television critic, the son of a revered former New Yorker editor, an anthologizer of popular music and sports writing, and an international journalist. Yet from these four—out of 40,000 responses he identifies as the smallest number a search for contemporary memoirs on Amazon will return—he felt only one was important and original enough to merit publication. Of the rest, and the vast majority, he writes:

Sure, the resulting list has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it. Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child, or been an underprivileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s, not to mention the ‘50s, ‘40s or ‘30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.

Already the hypothesizing mind sees potential patterns in his responses: perhaps working journalists, unable to make a mark in the fields that drew them to become writers in the first place, can still turn their contacts into memoir contracts. But then, writing in the on-line magazine Salon on January 29, Sarah Hepola came to the defense of one of Genzlinger’s targets, Heather Havrilesky, author of Disaster Preparedness, which Hepola identified as “a memoir of growing up sensitive and strange in the suburbs of the ‘70s and ‘80s.” But it was Salon that published Havrilesky’s TV reviews in the first place. That used to be called a conflict of interest, in the time before even Supreme Court justices openly accepted gifts from those who argue cases before them. Hepola may be taking advantage of the fact that in Cyberspace no one can see you blush.

Young, would-be writers face tough choices. They may choose to write non-fiction, which requires actually knowing what you’re talking about, or they may choose to write fiction, which demands challenging feats of imagination—and actually knowing what you’re talking about. But now there’s this new option: why not write a memoir? First-person narrators operate in a privileged position, since they are the authority on their subject, and have already done, or rather lived, the research. All that’s needed for success is to grab the reader in some way. Sympathy is probably the easiest, and so it is that while sports movies reliably deliver the dream of come-from-behind victory, most memoirs dwell on the triumph of just surviving. Thus a whole literary genre has grown up that celebrates something readers can truly identify with: getting through it. But at a time when would-be writers far outnumber readers, the drive to make survival feel special has led to exhaustion, exaggeration, and making it up. Writers unwilling to invent more interesting experiences of mediocrity are falling by the wayside.

In the ideology of writing schools and workshops, market exhaustion is not a problem. After all, the first principle of writing is that one does it for oneself. Thus the challenge of a challenged genre is wedded to a dubious activity: teaching writing. If one is not going to be published, especially if one lacks a publishing job or a relative who edits a magazine, and college writing programs in their candid moments admit they don’t expect their students to become writers, then a polished memoir may be the most likely payoff. So all over the world, students pay good money to study with authors who cannot make a living by writing. But disillusionment, like marriage, is something you have to try for yourself, and this month and later in the spring Salt Lake has both memoir workshops and readings by published memoirists on offer. Or one can try the two things that have shown, in case after case, that they do work. Spend the time reading the writers you admire, and then on Monday start writing like them.

Ree Drummond, New York Times bestselling author and blogger extraordinaire, presents her memoir, The Pioneer Woman: Black Heels to Tractor Wheels–A Love Story at King’s English February 10.
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In April Writers at Work presents a workshop by memoirist Brenda Miller as part of their re-Boot Camp for Writers.

Categories: Literary Arts

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