Sunday, March 28, 2010
Memoirs: The Criticism
Memoir is definitely my favorite literary genre. Don't ask me why, but I find something entirely powerful with a person who opens themselves up to a painful and/or troubling situation to try to make sense of it. We discover through their hurt and struggle what they have learned about life through their unfortunate trauma. These are, as we are supposed to believe, real stories, and because of that, I am even more interested.
But, the genre has received a lot of criticism over the past few years, especially when James Frey's book A Million Little Pieces came out. It was found that many parts of his book were either embellished or fictionalized. This takes away from the memoir--a true account. Are memoirsits writing their history the way they want it to be told? Do we tell a story in a certain way to portray ourselves in a certain way? It's like history teachers preach: History is told by those who want to teach it. Consider the point of view.
When I've had students write short memoirs, or this year when they wrote a memory start to finish, most of them wrote about their greatest difficulty afterwards: Getting down EXACTLY what happened and remembering every piece was really hard. Some of them said they even made up some parts because they just didn't remember. Part of what I wanted to show them was that exact issue. Writers do the best they can to remember what happened in each scene, but in the end, it really is just the best that the writer can do to convey what happened. The dialogue isn't verbatim, the characters might be just the perception of the writer, the drama or conflict may impact or be greater than it was because it's coming from the writer's perspective.
But, isn't a memoir really about how one person experiences a problem? I find some merit in the fact that it is the person's experience. How does the person remember and make sense of this problem? How would this person tell the story? What does that tell us about this person and his/her psyche? What is left out? What is overtold? Where do we end and begin? I find it to be a very interesting case study.
Yesterday I read an article in The New Yorker on this very issue. This is why all of these musings and defences are coming to mind. The subtitle of the article, "But Enough about Me" by Daniel Mendelsohn, asks us, What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves? He connects our love for memoirs almost to be like watching reality television. It's not really reality, but we still love to view it and perceive it as real. I don't know if that close of a connection can be made, but he also has other comments on the memoir that I want to share:
"Unseemingly self-exposures, unpalatable betrayals, unavoidable mendacity, a soupcon of metericiousness,: memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives (philosophy, history, literary fiction)--spilling family secrets, embarassing old friends--motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the center of attention."
"Such self-involvement [...] is just one of the charges that have been levelled against memoirs and their authors over the centuries, the others being that Freud was so leery of: indiscretion, betrayal, and outright fraud. But it's the ostensible narcissism that has irritated critics the most."
"Are there any motives for the enterprise that aren't tainted with justification? To halo a sinner's head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety?"
In defense of memoirs: "They accurately reflect a reality present not in the world itself, but in the author's mind."
Writing is therapeutic; it helps the writer cope and survive, to make sense of the incident(s).
The article discussed various memoirs that were claimed to be entirely fictionalized, some that were written about slave life and survival during the Holocaust. Perhaps it's more difficult to debunk those claims, but it is much easier today, especially when this person earns fame and a hefty salary. People are more willing to step forward to disclaim them, especially out of hatred and jealousy, especially if they were portrayed in a way that is not suitable to them (even if most of it is true).
But, I am still a supporter of the genre. I still find myself drawn to reading any memoir I can get my hands on. I feel like I am immersed in a situation or culture entirely foreign to me. Instead of reading a book about the topic, you get the internal narrative of what the person experiencing it feels and believes. Those hooked on drugs, we understand WHY they do what they do. We see WHY they got involved instead of a textbook's classic list of answers. When someone engages in plastic surgery, we read why this person is driven to do this. I find it fascinating to read the true narrative of someone who suffers and what they end up taking and learning from this experience.
I understand the criticism. There is merit to the claim. But with this known, don't we still keep that in the back of our minds when we read? We shouldn't ever read or view something and take it as 100% truth. We should always be questioning small details (or big ones) as good readers and viewers. After all, it is just a text. We can take what we can or need from it. We don't take it as gospel; we extract the lesson we need to learn.
Here are some good memoirs that I have really enjoyed in the past:
Running with Scizzors by Augusten Burroughs
Dry by Augusten Burroughs
Possible Side Effects by Augusten Burroughs
A Wolf at the Table by Augusten Burroughs
Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs
Scar Tissue by Anthony Kiedis
Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman
I'm Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer Purcell
Letters from My Father by Barrack Obama
Broken by William Cope Meyers
Wasted by Marya Hornbacher
Madness by Marya Hornbacher
A Million Little Pieces by James Frey
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M Pirsig
Passing for Normal by Amy Wilenski
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Find Me by Rosie O'Donnell
Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt
Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston
A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
The Glass Castle by Jeanneatte Walls
Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
Naked by David Sedaris
The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy
Marley and Me by Josh Grogan
Woman Warriors by Jennie McCarthy
Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom
Black Like Me by John Griffin
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
Tweak by Nic Sheff
Beautiful Boy by David Sheff
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
I Was Told There'd Be Cake by Sloan Crosley
Always Looking Up by Michael J. Fox
Unraveled by Maria Housden
Hope's Boy by Andrew Bridge
Night by Elie Wiesel
I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell by Tucker Max
Beautiful Stranger by Hope Donahue
Death Be Not Proud by John Gunther
So what do you think of the memoir?