April 26th, 2011 / 2:37 pm
Craft Notes & Random

memoir bully, memoir befriend!

On memoir, Fran Lebowitz says that if your life were all that interesting, someone else would write a book about it.

In basic agreement, Lorrie Moore replies to Lebowitz:

Despite having some sympathy with this idea, or with caustic wit, or with avoiding writing, one can nonetheless assume that there are good reasons to embark on a memoir: the world and the self collide in a particular way that only you, or mostly you, can narrate; you would like a preemptive grab at controlling the discourse.

And, among several gleaming shreds, this analogy of the memoir to:

Are you coming into the house of narrative through the back door because the back door is where the money is?


People are telling us their personal stories and speaking to us of their private lives and even if the structure is rickety and the prose has, to borrow Dick Cavett’s phrase, “all the sparkle of a second mortgage,” we are going to hang in there because it is true.

You can already see Moore’s reluctant (real at all–I dunno) respect (attack?) of/for the form. A funny thing NYRB chose her to review memoirs, but possibly they knew exactly what they were doing. Dinty Moore responds to Moore:

I’m throwing up my hands here.  I just don’t know what to say. We write memoir.  We work very hard to make our memoirs compelling, artful, and true.  Why all the hating?

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  1. Justin Taylor

      The first Moore wrote a longish essay that touches on a range of cultural and literary issues, anchored by a discussion of three specific examples of the genre in question. The second Moore wrote a blog post whose conclusion is “I’m throwing up my hands here.” That doesn’t qualify as a response in any meaningful sense of the word. What I don’t get is why Moore #2 decided to advertise his failure to come up with a response in lieu of spending more time trying to come up with one. But hey, that’s just me.

  2. Amy McDaniel

      That L. Moore’s article is longish and well-researched does not make the idea that memoirists should just write novels instead any less inane. She also shields herself from meaningful response by listing great exceptions to her rule. Seems like if you presented her with another great memoir, she’d just say, “Okay, fine, but as I said most of them are bad.” As if there aren’t plenty of bad novels.

      I appreciate D. Moore’s exasperation. People like L. Moore just aren’t listening–they have this weird dismissal of memoir-as-genre that seems mostly based on mediocre examples. Her idea that Bialosky’s and O’Rourke’s memoirs are “necessarily imperfect” because they are memoirs is disproven in her own criticism–nothing she points out would be fixed by the memoirs being novels instead; they would be improved simply by being better (tighter, more honest/self-aware) memoirs.

  3. Leapsloth14

      But hey, that’s just me.

      I don’t think so. That’s just as unsatisfying a /qualifier comment as how Moore (#2) ended his response. I would agree maybe that wasn’t the best pull-quote from Moore # 2. If you read his entire response (you did, I assume), he does address some points made in her essay. I’m not sure your point in calling her review “longish.” Is that a comment on Moore # 2’s post? If so, what do you expect from a blog post of magazine titled Brevity?

      As for me, I’m no big defender of memoir as a genre. Or attacker. The genre thing never really concerned me as much as sentence and words. I did want to hear other opinions on this forum, and thought seeing Moore # 1 and Moore # 2 might spark this.

      I think Moore # 2’s primary problem with Moore # 1 is her couching a “review” in an assassination attempt of a genre. Moore # 1 appropriates the tropes and expectations of an actual review of books into a clever, nudging (almost passive aggressive, but she does it so often it is just aggressive) dismissal of memoir, especially any memoir that isn’t in her little “OK, here’s a few that are actual literature” list. Moore has this smug default, it leaks a bit here, but that’s OK, the whole history of reviewer as curmudgeon, etc. I’d just like to actually see her be more direct. It seems here the books were besides the point. And, I agree then, to one of your points (maybe?), I’d would like to see a more substantial Moore # 2 response, but maybe in another forum we will?

  4. reynard

      the autobiography of nacho b. nacho by sean lovelace

  5. L.

      I guess the question though is, don’t memoirsts ALREADY write novels? Or works of autobiographical fiction that are indistinguishable from other autobiographical fiction other than the marketing category that is currently hip?

  6. L.

      That’s my problem with both Moores. Memoirists already write novels. They invent dialogue wholesale, take elements of their life and combine them, twist them, change them, they employ poetic licence, they… write fiction! And that’s to say nothing about the James Frey types. I’m talking the good ones.

  7. deadgod

      No, a memoir is not a novel.

      I think the relevant distinction is not between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’, but rather, between fiction and lie.

      In terms of impossibly confidently (and accurately) remembered conversations, memoirists (and autobiographers) are usually off the hook – though too many long conversations that make too many specific bullet points (of one kind or another) will get the book called, eh, truth-leaky.

      But verifiable statements of fact in a memoir are verified, to the extent that that book attracts attention. A memoir that claims a handful of untrue ‘facts’, if those untruths matter to someone who contacts the publisher, will get corrected. – and too dense a tissue of untrue ‘facts’ and the memoirist will become known for that fact. – and with respect to novelizing, Frey will be forced to call his lies ‘not even “lies” anymore’.

      A “memoir” is remembered – that’s it’s peculiar contribution: ‘person X remembers things this way’. This caveat – ‘memory is decadent, constructive/constructed, exculpatory (or, rarely, too guilty), and so on, but this story is how I remember things’ – shields memoirists from the more rigorous strictures of journalism (except in the case of Bobby Woodward’s made-up ‘conversations’, ha ha).

      The only factual errors in a novel are points where the text contradicts itself without fictive warrant – the left-handed character is later, crucially, right-handed, and this discrepancy isn’t woven into the story – it’s just a mistake of consistency.

      But when a memoirist remembers something that’s simply factually erroneous, that claim is contradicted not at the expense of the writer’s narrative craftsmanship, but rather, either her or his memory (acceptable) or her or his integrity (much less so) are at stake. – and when such errors of fact are deliberate, they’re not “mistakes” – they’re lies.

  8. L.

      No, a memoir is not really remembered. A memoir pulls bits of memory and then fictionalizes them—through invented conversations, likely distorted scenes, etc. No one remembers things they way they write them in a memoir. A memoir is enhanced and purposefully distorted memory. Or, as I said, it is basically autobiographical fiction.

      As you say, memorists are “let off the hook” for their constant fictionalizations of scenes, dialogue, etc. I agree. But that’s my point.

  9. deadgod

      Perhaps you skimmed the sentence where I ventriloquized the “caveat”: “memory is decadent, constructive/constructed, exculpatory (or, rarely, too guilty), and so on, but this story is how I remember things”.

      What I’d meant by this abbreviated list of all the ways that memory is elastic and self-justifying is that writing ‘memory’ isn’t the same as remembering itself, which, in turn, isn’t the same as ‘what really happened’. Even when one hears a casual account of a past experience, one has, operating, critical faculties that, while comparing the account to what could be or probably is actually what happened, nevertheless allow the account of the memory to stand as a representation of a memory of what actually happened.

      I figured that this “caveat” could be suggested shorthand, rather than laboriously pointing out that all memory is imperfect and all representation of memory is also imperfect.

      I do not say that “memorists are ‘let off the hook’ for their constant fictionalizations”. “Fictionalization” is, to me, an inaccurately polemical oversimplification for what happens in all accounting of memory.

      You seem also to have skimmed what I take to be the critical distinction: between fiction and lying. A memoirist, while telling the truth imperfectly about memories that reproduce past events imperfectly, is not “fictionalizing”; she or he is either imperfectly writing her or his memories or is lying. This distinction does not obtain in “fiction”.

  10. Anonymous
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