The latest victims are three memoirs taken down by Neil Genzlinger in the most recent NYTBR. I haven't read them, so I'm not going to comment on them in particular (though I guess that hasn't stopped me in the past) but rather on a couple of things Genzlinger says in his piece. The first is something I agree with, that No one wants to relive your misery. Well, okay, *I* don't want to relive your misery. I mean, I don't think I want to. But somehow I feel compelled to. It's weird. A few years ago I read probably the most horrifying memoir EVER: Ten Degrees of Reckoning by Hester Rumberg. It's about a family who travel around the world in a boat until a huge tanker crashes into them. The mother of the family watches as each of her children and her husband sink beneath the waves. She somehow makes it to land and is never the same. OF COURSE. It's a memoir of such abject misery I honestly don't know why it was published, though I know why it was written.
I agree with Genzlinger when he says,
Say you get stuck under a rock and have to cut off your own arm to escape. If, as you’re using your remaining hand to write a memoir about the experience, your only purpose in doing so is to make readers feel the blade and scream in pain, you should stop. You’re a sadist, not a memoirist; you merely want to make readers suffer as you suffered, not entertain or enlighten them.Yet, as queasy as these sadistic memoirs are, I can't stop reading them. How awful it happened to them! And Thank God it didn't happen to me.
So I do disagree with Genzlinger: my disagreement is two-layered. First, I don't think the content of the life experience should determine whether a person writes a memoir at all. At all! People's lives don't vary much in terms of interestingness; what varies is how perceptive the writer is. If you're a terrible, blah writer, you could make being the first woman to open a rib joint on Mars sound stupid. On the other hand, someone like Alan Bennett makes his quiet life infinitely fascinating. Genzlinger implies you need either an interesting life or a talent for writing. I think you just have to be able to write.
Secondly, he blames writers for the flood of banal memoirs. But human beings have always written about their lives, for better or for worse, boring and silly or vicious or sadistic. That doesn't mean publishers have to publish it. Why do writers always get the blame for bad trends? Seriously, I don't know a single person who can crank out 300 pages of something they don't believe in. Every memoir out there had to be written -- someone had to memorialize her dog, or capture his traumatic disease, or remember a childhood.
But need does not necessarily translate to excellence. And it's the editor's job to notice that, in the end, isn't it? You can't blame a writer for lacking talent, but you sure can blame a publisher for pretending the subject will carry the day.