The Problem With Memoirs [New York Times Book Review, January 28, 2011]
By Neil Genzlinger
A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.
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.
But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose. These days, if you’re planning to browse the “memoir” listings on Amazon, make sure you’re in a comfortable chair, because that search term produces about 40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.
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.
So in a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre, here are a few guidelines for would-be memoirists, arrived at after reading four new memoirs. Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades. Sorry to be so harsh, but this flood just has to be stopped. We don’t have that many trees left.
That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. This maxim, which was inspired by an unrewarding few hours with Disaster Preparedness, by Heather Havrilesky, is really a response to a broader problem, a sort of grade inflation for life experiences. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or a D if grades were being passed out — not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy.
And so Havrilesky, a former writer for Salon who is now a critic for the iPad publication The Daily, spends 239 pages dragging us through what seems to be an utterly ordinary childhood in North Carolina. Her mother is a little odd, but no odder than yours or mine. There is a divorce, but so what? There are siblings. “We filled each other with fear and anger, then made jokes and laughed together, to soften the blows,” she writes — in other words, they did what all siblings do.
The prose isn’t particularly surprising, and, more to the point, neither is the selection of anecdotes: cheerleader tryouts, crummy teenage jobs and, that favorite of oversharers everywhere, the loss of virginity. Maybe the vignette about the time she and her sister wrote to Amy Carter at the White House would have made a passable subplot in an episode of a mediocre Disney sitcom. The rest belongs on a blog.
No one wants to relive your misery. 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.
Sean Manning did not lose any limbs, but he did watch his mother die a lingering death from cancer, and in The Things That Need Doing he pummels us with the details of every intubation, change in medication and debate with doctors. Why does he do this? It’s certainly not to memorialize his mother; not only does he tell us little about her, but he also strips her of any and all dignity by describing in voyeuristic detail her vomiting, diaper changes and such.
No, the sole purpose of this memoir, like many, many others concerning some personal trial, is to generate sympathy for its author. Manning, who was in his mid-20s when he took his lengthy turn at the bedside, seems on every page to be looking for someone to say, “Poor Sean; how about a hug?” But it’s the reader who will need a hug after choking down this orgy of self-congratulation and self-pity. That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize that an ordeal, served up without perspective or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.
If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it. Imitation runs rampant in memoir land. There can’t be just one book by a bulimic or former war correspondent or spouse of an Alzheimer’s sufferer; there has to be a pile. And lately, the biggest pile of all has been books by parents, siblings and teachers of people with autism.
Allen Shawn, who teaches at BenningtonCollege, is the latest to climb on this heap, with Twin. The gimmick: his twin sister, now in her 60s, is autistic. Seems like a potentially interesting variation of the overworked theme. Until, that is, you start reading the book and realize that Shawn’s parents — his father was William Shawn, editor of The New Yorker — had his twin, Mary, institutionalized when she was 8, and that, psychic twinship or not, Allen Shawn doesn’t really know a thing about her.
Shawn describes how the family would arrive in a limousine for their occasional visits with Mary, an image that will infuriate those who have not had the luxury of paying someone else to make their problems go away. “Only a more naturally unified and self-sacrificing family than ours could have tolerated the enormous challenge of bringing her up at home,” he writes of Mary, part of a stunningly tone-deaf attempt to explain away the institutionalization as necessary because the rest of the family was quirky and William Shawn was busy not only with work but also with being a lifelong adulterer.
Institutionalization was just what people did back then, you say? “I am awestruck that, even in the time of my childhood, there were families that had the love, fortitude and resourcefulness to incorporate such children into their world,” Shawn writes near the end of this appalling example of coattail-grabbing. Yes, there were. And they’re the ones who are qualified to add to the heap of autism memoirs.
If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it. That is basically what Johanna Adorjan has done in An Exclusive Love (translated by Anthea Bell), her spare, beautiful exploration of why her grandparents killed themselves. Adorjan, a journalist in Berlin, artfully reconstructs the day in 1991 when her grandparents, who lived in Denmark, took their own lives in a suicide pact. Although she is part of the story, she wisely keeps herself on its edges, occasionally noting personality traits or mementos she inherited from her grandparents, but mostly bringing the two of them to life through her recollections and the memories of contemporaries she interviews.
“We all felt the force of her thrift,” she writes of her grandmother. “Her presents were always received apprehensively: what were we not going to be pleased to get this time? I remember T-shirts much too small for me, and you knew from the smell of them that they had been in my grandparents’ house for a long time (in fact they smelled as if they had been stored in an ashtray). A book that looked as if it had been read. A bottle not quite full of bath foam.”
This fascinating couple, who had survived the Holocaust and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, come slowly into focus for the author and the reader simultaneously, or so Adorjan makes it seem. That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.
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. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.
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