Friday, February 4, 2011

Who Should Write a Memoir?

Every once in a while the New York Times Book Review publishes a total trashing -- it's rare enough that it gets a good deal of attention when it happens. I'll never forget Lee Siegel's evisceration of Alice Sebold's The Almost Moon -- reading a review like that is like hearing about a friend's divorce: it makes you feel simultaneously sick and intrigued. How awful it happened to them! And Thank God it didn't happen to me.

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.


Hope said...

SO glad you posted on this subject, Rhian. I usually find myself not liking a lot of memoirs (especially those by women about women-specific subjects) and it makes me feel vaguely guilty. I mean, I truly care, I used to volunteer as a crisis counselor for the domestic abuse hotline, I GET how writing is for healing, but it is not always ... great literature. And I've attended countless open mics during which poets, male and female, spout such lengthy "abuse poems" that you just want to bang your head against the pastry case. Which I used to do.

jon said...

I don't read memoirs because I don't care about people's child sexual molestation, heroin addiction or bad divorce. It doesn't move me. I don't care. Go cry on someone else's shoulder for money. But as you say, if a person can write, and has something to say, that's a different story. It just doesn't seem to me that most 35 year old's life experience, or their perspective on it, is going to be worth the time it takes to read. The exception here is, if your arm is crushed by a boulder and you have to cut it off to live, or you watched your family drown one by one at sea, or you climb Everest to write about pollution and commercialization of the mountain and 6 or 8 people die, then yes, I do want to read it! Your divorce was probably like mine, but I've never had to decide whether to cut my arm off or die. I've never been caught behind enemy lines with two hundred soldiers whom I lead to safety. That's a memoir. And I do believe writers will write what publishers want. It's better than the night shift at Denny's.

David W. Berner said...

Memoirs of any kind are about insight. The subject can be dramatic, horrifying, or the simple, yet beautiful, process of going through a life. The key? It's the writing, stupid. Anyone can have a good editor and make a very dramatic story work. But GREAT memoirs are about the writing, the full-on insight that can resonate with all of us. It's about the human condition.
Do I have to feel your pain? Maybe, but not without insight! And, yep, good writing.

David W. Berner

rmellis said...

However, the best writer in the world could not make a thrilling memoir about my life --

Ginger said...

My life could probably fill a few interesting memoirs, but I've never been tempted to write one. Even in my poetry, I tend to avoid direct treatment of autobiographical material. Sometimes I wonder whether this is cowardice on my part--of the variety that keeps me from being more prolific. On the other hand, the glut of confessional art and entertainment in our culture makes it difficult to even process (much less write about) certain experiences without falling into clichéd narratives.

Like Hope, I do care (at least in the abstract) about other people's suffering. But...

I probably can't express my reservations better than Virginia Woolf did in To the Lighthouse. There's a scene in the last section, after Mrs. Ramsey has died, when Lily Briscoe encounters Mr. Ramsey in need of caring.

"[T]his was one of those moments when an enormous need urged him, without being conscious what it was, to approach any woman, to force them, he did not care how, his need was so great, to give him what he wanted: sympathy...No; she could not do it. She ought to have floated off instantly upon some wave of sympathetic expansion: the pressure on her was tremendous. But she remained stuck."

And she remains that way for more than two pages:

"They stood there, isolated from the rest of the world. His immense self-pity, his demand for sympathy poured and spread itself in pools at her feet, and all she did, miserable sinner than she was, was to draw her skirts a little closer round her ankles, lest she should get wet."

It's only as Mr. Ramsey is walking away, no longer demanding sympathy from her that Lily is able to feel it.

As I'm typing this, I'm reminded of the story John mentioned during the Colgate talk that was posted here recently--the one about the student recalling her exam answer to herself word for word as a sedative in the face of tragedy. I can't remember the story's title, and I'm sure I've never read it, but the image struck me powerfully. It's a great example, I think, of a writer being able to evoke rather than demand sympathy for a character.

Life doesn't always provide evocative material though. Often we just suffer banally. And maybe that's why I feel like there's greater expressive potential, generally speaking, in fiction than in memoir.

Jennifer said...

I would read a memoir by someone who works the night shift at Denny's.