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Hemon, Silverman, and What Makes Good Writing

August 18, 2011

In the March/April 2011 issue of the Writer’s Chronicle, a publication by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP), novelist Aleksandar Hemon admitted in an interview with Jeanie Chung that he’s not a fan of nonfiction’s memoir subgenre. At moments, it seems Hemon is simply not a fan of the how much memoir there is, “the overflow of memoiristic writing” and the publishing industry’s “reliance on the confessional memoir.” Ok. That’s pretty common of all art forms. Of all everything really. So many suburbs! So many pesto recipes! So many photographers who specialize in black and white! So many thigh-high socks! (I hate thigh-high socks.) Additionally, I, and probably every other writer and reader, will agree with Hemon when he says, “If you have a story to tell, tell it all the way.”

But at other moments, Hemon seems to be taking memoir in general to task, as if writing memoir is not taking a story all the way. Hemon states, “…this refusal to enter literature, to create fictional work, to ply the imagination, to start from scratch, that to me is cowardly.” Which reads to me like a literary game of anything you can do, I can do better. And this: “There is something so safe when someone tells you, ‘Your story’s interesting. Just tell it.’ Then you put it together and there’s your memoir.” Hemon, having since published “The Aquarium,” a personal history about his young daughter’s brain tumor, in The New Yorker, might look back on that comment and cringe a little bit. Hemon’s story about his daughter is very interesting, and very tragic, and very connected, too, to all the other parents who have faced down the fact that their children have become sick before even learning to walk and talk. Hemon’s story, though, is unique. Because this is his daughter, his family, his attempts to learn how to cope, attempts built on a lifetime of achievements and failures of coping. Hemon, of course, didn’t just “put it together” and find himself with a memoir. He wrote, the way he writes his fiction. That is to say, carefully, artfully, haltingly, and beautifully. And should thousands of other parents do the same, I doubt anyone could complain of an “overflow.” (Someone, however, would complain. Someone always does.)

So those few comments embedded in an otherwise not-at-all-contentious interview, have rankled many, many, many memoirists (and writers of nonfiction in general), myself included. I just want him to take that part back! At the same time, when comments like these come out in print, as they tend to do, they inspire others to oppose, clarify, and bring us closer to an accurate definition of what good writing really is, no matter what the genre. So I have to appreciate Jeanie Chung’s questioning that led Hemon to make the comments. And I appreciate now the chance to consider further comments that have been made as a result.

Sue William Silverman, a professor at Vermont College of Fine Arts, someone I am fortunate to have as my mentor and also my friend, wrote a response to the interview. Her letter was published in the most recent issue of the Writer’s Chronicle. With Sue’s permission, I am posting her response here, because she not only responds directly to Hemon’s memoir comments, she also makes an invaluable point about writing in general. About why some writing starts to attract, then retain, readers. About WRITING, I should say in bold caps: the genre-less, boundary-less craft that can be so very magical but can go so horribly wrong, too. Sue’s response:

I was disappointed to read an interview with yet another fiction writer taking a swipe at memoir, as if it’s unseemly to explore the human condition. Worse, when Mr. Hemon questions “…how many books of addiction can you write in a lifetime,” he attempts to reduce human experience to the absurd notion that a person is defined by just one thing. I admit it – I have written about addiction. But I’ve also written about growing up in the West Indies, Pat Boone, Route 17, working in a building riddled with asbestos, Lake Michigan, my love of the television show Mystery Science Theater 3000, and so on. Putting subject matter aside, what Mr. Hemon fails to grasp is that memoir requires that the author craft a personal story into one that’s metaphoric and universal – just like fiction and poetry.

I don’t hear nonfiction writers disparage novelists, so it’s all the more frustrating that any number of fiction writers have an axe to grind with memoirists. Literature is not a zero-sum game. What expands readership is great writing, whatever form it takes. What shrinks readership is the failure of writers to take emotional and stylistic risks. Right now, I believe that an expanding range of creative nonfiction presents writers with the best opportunities to take those risks. It’s not surprising, therefore, that many serious writers – to say nothing of readers – find this genre so compelling.

Sue William Silverman,
Faculty, Vermont College of Fine Arts

I’ve just printed and posted this above my desk: “Literature is not a zero-sum game.” Swoon.

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