Last week my father sent me a link to an article about memoir from the New York Times: “it’s terrific, well written, and very funny” he wrote.
I had seen the headline–“The Problem With Memoirs”–but at that point, I hadn’t read it. Probably I hadn’t read it for the same reason I often don’t read New York Times articles: that I didn’t have time. Or at least, thought I didn’t have time. (Who has time to read whole news articles when there are endless Facebook statuses to skim and the internet is crowded with pretty pictures of lemon tarts and raspberry linzer cookies you like to fantasize about baking? Welcome to my world.)
But possibly I also didn’t read it because, well, because the headline promised a pretty direct attack on what I do.
It’s hard not to feel insecure about the impulse to write memoir. That article hammers home, rather agressively, the worst stereotype about the genre: that it’s filled with narcissistic, over-sharing attention whores shamelessly appealing to readers’ most base, voyeuristic impulses.
Now, I have never claimed that I don’t like to overshare. I’m not proud of this trait, but I accept it. The narcissistic label is one that I, with varying degrees of success, try and resist. Do I like attention? Sure, who doesn’t. (Okay, lots of people. But those of us who do aren’t exactly a minority.)
Should everyone who exhibits these traits write memoir? Of course not. Honestly, I think it’s really hard to write successful nonfiction. But it’s possible. It’s possible if you write well.
I think I’ve already gushed on various platforms about how much I loved a new memoir by Gail Caldwell, called “Take the Long Way Home.” I loved it because it renders a singular, personal experience of friendship and loss into something that magnifies and clarifies our own experience. And it does so beautifully. In other words, it does the same thing as all great art: it gives us an aesthetic experience in which to luxuriate and marvel, and it makes us think differently about the world. Sorry, but I don’t see anything problematic with that.
But, unlike certain other relatives who shall not remain nameless (I love you even with your forwards, Susie), my father does not send me articles very often. Plus, who doesn’t like to occasionally indulge morbid curiosity. So I read it.
But before I wrote him back, I was glad to come across this response.
It’s from the Brevity blog and written by Dinty Moore: a well-known writer and teacher of creative nonfiction, whose pithy retort–that it’s not memoirs we should fault, but bad memoirs–I basically just stole.
“My thoughts exactly,” I wrote above the link I sent my dad.
He didn’t write back, but last night brought it up over the phone.
“So you loved the article?” he asked. “Wasn’t it great?”
“What?” I replied, startled. “No! Did you get my email!?”
“Yeah,” he said. “You said it was exactly your thoughts, or something.”
“No! I sent you another article from someone who disagrees!” I explained. “That’s what I agree with.”
Realizing he hadn’t seen the link, I proceeded to deliver some version of the rant delivered above, reminding him that James Frey wanted to publish a novel but was convinced by his publisher to sell it as memoir–not because he’s an attention whore but because memoirs sell better.
“It’s not about narcicism!” I insisted. “It’s about money!”
Then again, at that writing conference in Washington I attended a couple of (mostly disappointing) panels on the subject of memoirs, or some spin on the “new nonfiction”–whatever that means. They were packed. I mean, packed: like, royal dining room sized swaths of carpet filled with people sitting as close together as passengers on a rush hour 4 train.
Maybe some of those people are narcissists. Probably some of them crave attention and are prone to overshare. Hopefully lots of them are actually good writers. But I doubt most of them chose to pursue writing because they think it’s gonna make them rich. Just guessing.