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RE: “The Problem With Memoirs”

January 30, 2011

Neil Genzlinger of the New York Times used an opportunity to read and review four recent memoirs as a platform to share his general opinion of what he calls an “absurdly bloated genre.” (Published today in the Sunday Book Review.)

While I don’t fault Mr. Genzlinger for sharing his opinion, and while I implicitly trust the wisdom of those who have given him such a widely read platform on which to share it, I do hope his review doesn’t sway readers from picking up a memoir, even one by an “unremarkable” or “undistinguished” person, the kind of person Mr. Genzlinger believes has no place in the genre.

Of the four books he reviews, Mr. Genzlinger states, “Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades.” It’s funny, that’s how I feel about poems, short stories, novels, movies, cookbooks, magazines, documentaries, music videos, paintings, sculptures, photographs, and, yes, book reviews, to name just a few. In fact, nothing needs to be written or created.

Our time of “oversharing” as he and so many others have described “our current age” has certainly produced an enormous amount of material, of stuff, judged by critics and consumers and, very often, by no one at all. But this age of “oversharing” is also the age of overtraveling, overeating, overspending, overconnecting, overachieving, overassaulting, overcheating, overdrinking, overdrugging, overlying, overlearning, overattempting, and overcriticizing. So rather than question the glut of memoirs out there, perhaps it’s worth looking at why we are producing and consuming so much of everything? Perhaps Mr. Genzlinger just doesn’t go far enough. He stops at memoirs. His argument, however, might be broadened to encompass all of the arts and, really, all the things we now do that previous generations didn’t do, or at least, didn’t do to such an extent.

But back to memoir, since Mr. Genzlinger goes on to state that his purpose in writing this review is, “a possibly futile effort to restore some standards” to the genre. I get that. I like standards. Where Mr. Genzlinger and I disagree is on how to define those standards.

His standards, which I’ve cut from his piece by slicing them from the tops of his critiques, are below, followed by my amendments:

Standard One. “That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.”

I agree in theory, but it’s not a very helpful or constructive standard. I would say that the urgency to write a memoir about your parents and childhood, and the willingness to put the hard work into writing and revising it, does qualify you to write a memoir. That, to me, is the real standard. If you’ve no real urgency, no real personal need to set your story to paper, you might want to write it anyway, but my guess is the memoir just won’t be as good.

Standard Two. “No one wants to relive your misery.”

No one can. But some people might want to experience your misery for the first time. And you, for one, might want to relive your misery. To relive misery, some people paint, some people write heartbreaking song, some people spend years in therapy. If you want to relive your misery by writing it in a memoir, then write it in a memoir. How I’d amend this standard is to add the attention to craft. If you want to relive your misery, and you work hard to learn how to craft it into fine prose, prose that transcends the misery and adds to our understanding of how, say, pain, healing, grief, and forgiveness work us over and often drive our lives and relationships, then you’ve probably met the standard for writing a memoir. (The same goes for reliving joy, reliving childhood, reliving your worst mistake, and so on.)

Standard Three. “If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.”

With the bandwagon so chock-full of highly-credentialed folks, this seems just foolhardy and defeatist. And probably expensive, too. Ignore the bandwagon and write what you need to write. You might make Mr. Genzlinger and a lot of other people very irritated, but you might make me and a lot of other people very happy. You’ll make me happy not by out-credentialing those folks, but by meeting my standard of originality, by surprising, entrancing, delighting me, yes, even if you’re writing about your “undistinguished life.” My standard list, therefore, just doesn’t include anything about credentials or bandwagons.

Standard Four. “If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.”

That is indeed an option, but it’s not the only one. It seems dangerous to make this a standard. I’d say this instead: “Make yourself a character in your memoir.” To me, the best memoirs reveal their narrators in all their glory or banality, in all their accomplishments or self-hatred. To what extent you are a character can only be decided by the the story you wish to tell, the role you played in it, and how you wish to tell it.

Standard Four-A. “Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.”

Agreed, 100%. Discovery, I also believe, is a crucial aspect of memoir-writing. I tend to think it’s a crucial aspect of most of the arts. (But still, as I sit in the dentist chair and am forced to listen to Rod Stewart asking, “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” I suspect he discovered little when writing and recording the song, save for a few positive, negative, or on-the-fence responses.)

Mr. Genzlinger says, “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

There was a time. And now is a different time, and this, all of this, is what’s coming out of it. More people want to write memoirs. And more people want to publish memoirs. And more people want that trend to stop. And more people want that trend to continue. I agree that many memoirs out there aren’t very good. I wish there were a way to fix that, to convince publishing houses and agents to discern by quality and not by potential earnings. But they have to stay afloat, too. There’s no clear villain. Mr. Genzlinger’s objections just seem misdirected. As for the glut of book reviews, for example (anyone with online access can opine about books to an audience), I don’t fault book reviews or even those who write poor ones. That would just be mean-spirited.

I considered adding specific memoirs to illustrate my points here. But then I decided that despite the fact I have no credentials to write book reviews, I will do so. Here probably, on this blog, since it’s my platform and I’ve got online access and I want to write them. Before today I didn’t feel any real need, but now I feel this urgency, this desire to share with my community the memoirs I have read, especially those I have loved. It’s so nice to share what we love.

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