Get Me Up Close To the Lives of Others

Anytime an essay’s title riffs on a variation of “The Problem With [insert perceived source of a problem],” there is likely to be a problem. It is a provocative way to begin a conversation, surely, and provocation is often useful to instigate discussion but when there’s “a problem” with something, vague generalizations are likely to follow. In the Sunday Book Review this week, Neil Genzlinger wrote an essay, “The Problem With Memoirs,” where he takes issue with this “age of oversharing.” He writes, “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,” as if there should be a vetting process for who is or is not eligible to write a memoir.

For a long time, I was fairly skeptical of memoirs and did not necessarily see the utility in reading an accounting of someone else’s memories, particularly when those memories seemed to come from an ordinary life or a life not yet fully lived, as is the case for young memoirists. I understand Genzlinger’s frustration but his lament felt a bit narrow and shortsighted. When a very young person writes a memoir, I often wonder what they could have possibly learned, but that attitude is not necessarily fair, particularly because people often mistake memoirs for autobiographies and they are not the same thing. As I understand them, autobiographies recount the entirety of a life lived. Memoir, which takes its meaning from the Latin memoria, to reminisce, is about a moment or series of moments in time that might speak to something greater. Memoirs are more intimate in scope. A memoir tells a close story so it is not surprising then that memoirs are written by people of all ages, whether they have accomplished something noteworthy (a relative concept) or had an unusual experience (also relative), or not.

The “problem” with dismissing memoir, and particular memoirs written by young writers or chronicling the ordinary life is that it assumes we can only become worthy reporters of our lives, and chroniclers of our memories through aging or experiencing something profound. There is undoubtedly a certain wisdom that comes with age or experiencing something profound but there is also wisdom to be found in ordinary experiences.  Neither writing nor remembrance are easy tasks and as such I have a real respect for writers who take the journey inward regardless of what inspired that journey.

Are too many memoirs being written? I try not to ascribe to the finite theory of publishing, the idea that there is some kind of limit on the number of books that can or should be published. This is, indeed the age of self-disclosure though I would not go so far as to name it the age of “oversharing.” We take to our blogs and hide in plain sight, writing intimately from our lives for anyone to see though in reality, for most of us, there are only a handful of readers. That’s okay. Blogging is a way to connect, and it’s certainly a way to indulge our vanity, to be, perhaps, narcissistic but hopefully doing so with fine turns of phrase, in ways that are more exploratory than indulgent. It makes sense that with the popularity of blog there’s also an increase in the number of memoirs being published. I see a trajectory there. With the rise of the blog, there seems to be more of a permissiveness or tolerance for the genre. Blog entries are short so it makes sense that we might want to read similar, self-reflective writing in the longer form. Emily Gould’s work comes to mind.

Genzlinger disparages that, “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.” In a sense, though, he contradicts himself because many of the experiences on his laundry list are noteworthy and unusual. Anytime someone deals with adversity, or runs 26 miles and change or has come to some kind of realization they believe is worth sharing, there’s likely to be an interesting story. I cannot say that every story every memoirist has to tell will interest me but I do not begrudge them their right to write about their lives. Genzlinger also seems to overlook the reality that publishing is a business of supply and demand. If there were no demand for these stories, these memoirs would not be published.

In his essay, he discusses four memoirs, three of which he believes should not have been written. That determination, in and of itself, bothers me, the idea that there are stories that shouldn’t be written. In this instance, we’re talking about memoirs, but historically, there have been all kinds of limitations on who should write what. What genre will be eliminated from the canon of appropriate writing next? I don’t want to make a slippery slope argument but it’s a bad precedent to say certain books should not be written. We don’t have to appreciate everything and Lord knows there’s a lot of writing out there that makes you wonder but I’d rather believe anything can and should be written if one is so inclined than to start establishing rules about what can be written based on arbitrary standards of legitimacy.

Genzlinger’s concerns seem to be more about what we choose to read rather than who should write a memoir. I haven’t read any of the books he discusses so I cannot really comment on his critiques but all the stories did seem interesting. I’m nosy. I’m always intrigued by the lives others and how writers shape those lives for the reader. One of the books Genzlinger doesn’t care for, Dis­aster Preparedness by Heather Havrilesky, is probably the one I am most likely to read because I am familiar with Havrilesky’s writing—she used to cover TV for Salon and she’s intelligent and funny. That’s always a good place to start. Another memoir he takes to task is Sean Manning’s The Things That Need Doing, a man’s account of taking care of his mother as she was dying from cancer. Genzlinger asserts that the book leaves Manning’s mother with no dignity as if there’s any dignity to be had from dying. Death is ugly so if there’s a book out talking about some of the more mundane, physical realities of dying, there’s no shortage of interesting material. From what I gather, the book is also about much more than a mother dying given that Manning is an only child and the book also explores his personal history. Perhaps everyone is interesting if you look hard enough. Stephen Elliott has been writing about genius in the Daily Rumpus over the past couple weeks, about how genius is not as rare as you might think, among other things. If I understand him correctly, we all want to believe we’re special, that we’re remarkable. I wonder if there’s an increase in memoirs because more of us are trying to find the genius, the remarkable, the special in ourselves. Is there anything wrong with that?

I didn’t realize I had a strong opinion about memoirs one way or the other until I read Genzlinger’s treatise. His contrarian perspective got my attention and forced me to think about memoir, memory, and the legitimacy of telling our stories no matter how ordinary they might seem. In many ways, this goes back to one of the ideas I seem to keep coming back to, the “small” story that isn’t so small, the close story, domestic stories, intimate stories. I am fascinated by the idea of the extraordinary ordinary, of every life lived being an interesting life lived. Toward the end of the essay, Genzlinger says, “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it,” and that is certainly good advice. The thing is, we’re talking about something subjective. Even if he can’t see this sense of discovery he speaks of, that doesn’t mean it’s not there for another reader. Few readers approach books in the exact same way. Genzlinger also says there’s no shame in having lived an undistinguished life. If he truly believed that, there would be no shame in writing about an undistinguished life, either.