January 31st, 2011 / 10:22 pm
Craft Notes

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.

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43 Comments

  1. Trey
  2. Sean

      Does every confessional poet have a great event?

      Does every haiku have an explosion?

      I thought these memoirs were the after-effect of realism. The small, ordinary, ordinary people moments have value, have universal realities behind an oft droll existence.

      Also it comforts to see others thinking the banal is amazing.

  3. Amy McDaniel

      Yes. Genzlinger’s essay is so bad. His reasoning is faulty and he seems to fancy himself a sparkling wit, erroneously. I was particularly turned off by the fact that he seems to value good writing only insofar as it can “turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” I’m not even sure what that means, as “snapshot” and “broad,” or at least “broad” and “moment,” seem a bit at odds. But sense-making aside, he is really devaluing good prose–which to me is necessary to any (prose) book worth reading memoir or not–which may be why he doesn’t bother much with his own prose.

  4. Janey Smith

      The problem with Roxane Gay is that she doesn’t live close enough to Janey Smith.

  5. phmadore

      You’re probably crossing a line.

  6. Roxane

      I’d love living near you. Come to the country. Leave that big city behind. We can summer in SF.

  7. Roxane

      I don’t think he really knows what he means with some of the phrases he tossed about. He sure was cranky.

  8. Roxane

      I had not seen this, but it was interesting to see someone else’s take on Smith’s memoir. I keep wondering if I should pick it up but I’m not a huge fan of her music so I haven’t bothered as of yet.

  9. Roxane

      If a haiku explodes in a forest….

  10. Lincoln Michel

      Do memoirs really tell a close story though? Many memoirs these days seem to be “my autobiography up to here.” (Or else “novel I had to call memoir to sell since the standards are lower.”)

      I also think the idea of engaging in memory and the process of recollection is interesting, but the number of memoirs (like “Speak, Memory”) that even attempt to do that seem few and far between.

  11. Justin Taylor

      Roxane, I just love that nothing sets you off like a breach of temperance–and that your battle call is always for moderation and equanimity. You truly are the last centrist! xo

  12. Michael Copperman

      Even-handed, fair, and far more illuminating than the original essay.

      Memoir is a ‘genre’ I have to admit I still don’t really understand. I appreciated your definition, Roxane, but what is the difference between a memoir and creative nonfiction? Is memoir just creative nonfiction that doesn’t necessarily deploy the tropes and devices of fiction, and which is necessarily concerned with the writer’s personal life and not broader themes (or the wider world?)? But then, that definition would seem to contradict a definition of ‘good’ that is based on what the piece has to say about the society at large, or some particular age or whatever (that snapshot line sounded like an unacute version of one of the reviews on the back of Mrs. Dalloway concerning that book’s merit because of how it captured a time and mood and social milieu– I think it is from there, actually), which neither of us seem to think is the right reason a piece of writing is good. Anyone got a definition for me that adequately delineates the difference?

  13. Roxane

      I am a Libra. I do have things I’m rabidly left about but on most matters, I find the center to be ideal.

  14. Amy McDaniel

      me too! except not the libra part. i’m a leo so the center part is usually between “likes to be” and “of attention.”

      to steal from sara faye lieber’s fb page twice in one day…everything in moderation, including moderation

  15. deadgod

      It’s like: you’ve got your flat-Earth theory and you’ve got your spherical-Earth theory.

      The moderate, middle-of-the-road, eminently sane, rock-ribbed centrist will take the reasonable from each theory, and leave behind the whacky for the . . . well, for the extremists.

      Be-e-e-e-cause . . . the extremes are EQUALLY “extreme”!

      Thing is: if you go far enough on a sphere . . . it’s flat – – and if you go far enough on a plane – it’s spherical!

      See?: the spectrum of opinion is actually IDENTICALLY “extreme” at its extremities!

      Fair-and-square, even Stephen, equal stequal: not too spherical, not too flat: that’s the terrestrial-geometry ticket.

  16. mimi

      You, deadgod, and Your Comments have fast become my daily go-to(s) at HTML G.

  17. Amy McDaniel

      would that i could be as delightfully extreme all the time as an anonymous internet commenter! but alas. sometimes i like loud things and sometimes i like total quiet. i like fat and lean. darkness and light.

  18. deadgod

      all the time

      ?? If the soundscape is “loud” or “total[ly] quiet”, that is “extreme all the time” (though maybe not “delightfully”).

      The problem with moderation-for-the-sake-of-moderation is that the virtue of “moderation” is not moderation, but rather the rationality or reasonableness of some particular moderation.

      Centrality is a politician’s virtue – sometimes more good, sometimes (much) less.

      Extremity can also be correct, true-to-life, virtuous.

      – as you say above: mhden agan – ‘nothing excessively’ (including avoidance of excess).

  19. Ray Shea

      I always think memoir is about me, creative nonfiction is about me or them or us.

      I don’t know if I get Foreman’s complaint about Just Kids. I thought in particular the sentence “Just the idea that you could go to the ocean via subway was so magical” stands on its own. I don’t need the writer giving me a whole paragraph ruminating on the inherent contrasts and contradictions, they are already called to mind just by the words “ocean” and “subway” in the same sentence, and “doing something more with it” is an invitation to bludgeon the magical right out of it.

      I’m a fan of her music but I imagined her springing into the music world fully-formed. All I knew about Mapplethorpe was that Christians don’t like “Piss Christ”. That there was a whole complex relationship between these two icons before they were icons was fascinating.

      As for Genzlinger: the other day Sari Botton found a quote from Frank McCourt from a 1997 panel on “The Problem with Memoir”, where he said “Why does there have to be a problem?” As if there’s assumed to be a problem there and Genzlinger’s job is to figure out what it is. Might as well write “The Problem with Books”.

  20. Roxane

      I have no problem with extremity as a stance. It’s just not my general style (unless it is). Ask me about the death penalty, for example, and I will froth.

  21. deadgod

      I think of ‘memoir’ as being a sub-category of ‘creative non-fiction’: every ‘memoir’ [that actually is a “memoir”, author-of-not-especially-“creative”-fiction Frey] is a piece of ‘creative non-fiction’, but ‘creative non-fiction’ that doesn’t foreground – or even entail – the writer’s personal experience of the subject/topic isn’t ‘memoir’.

      I think this discussion supports the part/whole categorical distinction I’m suggesting: http://www.creativenonfiction.org/thejournal/whatiscnf.htm .

      Gutkind calls ‘creative non-fiction’ “[writing] that communicate[s] information (reportage) in a scenic, dramatic fashion”, emphasizing “adher[ence] to basic tenets of reportage” and “parallel narratives [of] almost always a ‘public’ and a ‘private’ story”. (I prefer “literary non-fiction”, because the phrase picks out more accurately the difference between ‘creative non-fiction’ and jus’-plain ‘journalism’.)

      The difference with ‘memoir’ would be that the story of the story in memoir is the “me, me, me” filter, while in other ‘creative non-fiction’ an authorial reticence doesn’t ‘let’ that happen.

  22. Roxane

      I’m not sure on the difference between memoir and creative nonfiction though off the top of my head, I’d say that creative nonfiction does not necessarily have to be personal, as you allude to. Maybe I’ll ask some folks who write in these genres and put a post together.

  23. c2k

      What do you think about the death penalty?

      Too easy? obvious?

  24. Roxane

      Totally too easy, haha.

  25. Neil Griffin

      I’ve been reading Ander Monson’s Vanishing Point, which explores (or explodes) memoirs in a fascinating way. For those of you interested in the definitions of memoirs or why we are so interested in them right now, I definitely recommend the book/website. A point is that we need to contextualize our lives in a narrative to give meaning to our lives and, due to this human need, the myriad of memoirs read remarkably similarly to each other when put down in this now familiar form. For him, there is a master memoir narrative that you can piece together from the thousands that flood the marketplace, since we all use the same plot points in our narratives.

  26. Michael Copperman

      That would be interesting– the ‘personal’ part seems sort of central. Not that ‘genre’ is something I spend a great deal of time sweating, but then again, this post was about the dismissal of a particular genre, so I suppose it would be helpful to be clear.

  27. Michael Copperman

      Yeah, that discussion is relevant, but– but. I know Lee Gutkind is supposed to be the ‘father’ of the genre, and Creative NF the voice of the genre or whatever, and still, his definition doesn’t seem adequate to me… it strikes me as artificial, I guess, or at least, an attempt to delineate what can’t necessarily be delineated (or maybe, what shouldn’t be defined as explicitly different). I think ‘literary journalism’ is clearer– someone like Susan Orlean seems to me to both offer her voice and presence and judgment in much of her work without attempting to get at herself– but then, even in the early Literary Journalism anthologies, one of which I have, a lot of the work is finally about the way the things the narrator sees undo THEM as they understand the implications of what’s occurred. Another example of someone who’s clearly not trying to get at himself would be Malcolm Gladwell… even when he’s talking about or making use of the personal, his vision is turned outward toward theme or wordly implications (which is one reason I don’t love him). But lines get easily blurred– I’m especially confused by these differences because I have a piece in Creative Nonfiction’s “Best Creative Nonfiction, vol. III,” anthology (basically, a hardbound issue of CNF they’ve done a couple times through Norton to replace an issue and charge a bunch more and get bookstores to stock them on their shelves) and the piece is surely about me and my assumptions being undermined by a tragedy as much as its about the child who suffers the tragedy. If that’s creative nonfiction according to Gutkind, who published it in the ‘Best of’ anthology of Creative Nonfiction, then I don’t understand the definition at all, since the way it was written is identical to related work I’ve published as fiction, and the piece in question, with names and places changed, appears verbatim as a chapter of my novel. Or to put it differently, being primarily ‘scenic/dramatic,’ and working through ‘parallel narratives of a public and private story’ strike me as being identical to what fiction attempts to achieve– first and second story, and the ways elements of narrative strike beneath the surface of the public story to get at something more significant.

  28. deadgod

      Well, I don’t know much about Gutkind, though I think his essay-definition is useful, so let me defend the latter by way of passing by the former.

      True, the literary (as opposed to, eh, reference) mode is probably essential to fiction, and an oscillation between ‘public/private story’ is vital to the fiction that I can think of off the top of my head, but Gutkind, as I’d tried to say, does push the “basic tenets of reportage” to the fore as an element of (I guess) any kind of “non-fiction”.

      In other words, “creative non-fiction”, including “memoir” (in my taxonomy, not necessarily Gutkind’s), claims to report objectively actual perception, action, event, and fact; fiction claims to be made-up. (- to put the distinction in immediately and easily debated terms.)

      (Not, of course, that the report itself be ‘objectively true’, or even that such a state of language usage need even be possible, but rather, that such a claim – fictive though it be – is made by – and defines – “non-fiction” as distinct from not-non-“fiction”.)

      Now, fiction often has reported fact woven into it, whether a matter of the author’s research or personal life; Tolstoy’s great effort to get battles and historical persons ‘right’ in War and Peace is an example of the former, and your novel, as (I think) you say, an example of the latter. – This objective-report-in-a-made-up-story doesn’t change the fictivity of, say, some particular novel. (If one wants to challenge whether a “novel” is, as a discrete whole, ‘made-up’, well, okay. . . .)

      Such are the differences, as I understand the terms “memoir”, “creative non-fiction”, “journalism”, and “fiction”: a memoir is a piece of “creative non-fiction” that makes the author so much a part of the story as to be its protagonist; creative non-fiction is literary report-of-objective-fact; journalism is reference-oriented report-of-objective-fact; and fiction is made-up storytelling.

      (Of course, every distinction in every discussion can be deconstructed; it’s my interest to use ultimately precarious terms in a practical way.)

  29. Michael Copperman

      “Such are the differences, as I understand the terms “memoir”, “creative non-fiction”, “journalism”, and “fiction”: a memoir is a piece of “creative non-fiction” that makes the author so much a part of the story as to be its protagonist; creative non-fiction is literary report-of-objective-fact; journalism is reference-oriented report-of-objective-fact; and fiction is made-up storytelling.”

      Um, that was really, really well-put, dg. Well, maybe the definition of fiction is a bit over-simplified, but that’s it’s own complicated province with particular politics, intrigue and a lot of interested parties vying for influence. In terms of the relationships, especially between memoir and creative nonfiction, your definition is clear and functional and, I think, correct.

      What I was trying to get at is that while we create these categories, and often insist on them, drawing lines on a slippery slope, functionally all three can be, under some circumstances at least, so closely related and inextricable that telling them apart requires a clear definition like yours (and probably, an entire close reading to make the case as to why one genre is more appropriate than another).

  30. c2k

      Certain literary debates are like herpes. They flare up periodically and receives lots of attention, cause lots of consternation, and then go away… for awhile. ‘The Death of the Novel’ debate is one of the classic literary STDs. The ‘Are Memoirs Trash?’ debate is another.

  31. c2k

      Certain literary debates are like herpes. They flare up periodically and receives lots of attention, cause lots of consternation, and then go away… for awhile. ‘The Death of the Novel’ debate is one of the classic literary STDs. The ‘Are Memoirs Trash?’ debate is another.

  32. elizabeth ellen

      i thought that was the funniest, most dead-on essay i’ve read in months. i made aaron read it out loud to me a second time so i could laugh and say “amen” aloud.

  33. c2k

      Just the idea that you could go to the ocean via subway was so magical.

      I haven’t read Just Kids, so I have no idea whether Robert Long Foreman (if we were friends, I’d call him Stevedore) is correct or not in his assessment. But re the Patti Smith sentence above: what I’d say about it is that it is not a writer’s voice, that is, not written per se. This sentence is Patti Smith – but how she communicates verbally. Anyone who’s seen her interviewed ought to recognize this is how she speaks. I wonder if she dictated portions of the book (??). In any event, the old spoken-voice-v-written-word trick may have been the way to go, Steve-o.

  34. deadgod

      – and I’d re-agree that such distinctions, which might seem forensically non-slippery because, stated hard-and-fast, they promise enough firmness of purchase to be indubitable ‘grasping’ tools, don’t actually succeed unmessily in separating objects that intractably overlap.

      But, you know, however much overlap of the categories “creative non-fiction” and “journalism” there is, reading The Right Stuff (say) causes a different order of effects than reading the front page of one’s local fishwrap.

      And Down and Out in Paris and London puts “Orwell” forward as a protagonist, through whose mind the world(s) of poverty and dispiriting labor are understood, in a way that The Right Stuff does not interpose “Wolfe” between the reader and jet pilots/astronauts as protagonist (though he is ‘there’, both in his style and in his (I thought) relatively unobtrusive judgements).

      Reading, while done with more understanding if done more rationally, is an art and not a science. (- another distinction begging for deconstruction, ha ha.)

  35. deadgod

      [does not interpose “Wolfe”, as protagonist, between reader and pilot]

  36. deadgod

      ha ha ha – That’s a sharp round-up. I agree with the third comment; boring as the/we debaters are, the debate itself is interesting.

      The debate about the debate is dead; let the debate about the debate about the debate rage.

  37. c2k

      Disheartening, as I must now delete my already-penned “The Problem With Humans” essay. It was a tour de force.

  38. deadgod

      – thereby illuminating both a Problem With Essays and a Solution By Deletion.

      Perhaps you could write “The Problem With Tours de force“. Don’t let it get any good, though.

  39. Michael Copperman

      I see what you mean. Or at least, I see what you mean but haven’t read “Down and Out in Paris and London,” so that I understand but of course don’t get the full meaning (I am quite unevenly read).

      It’s that question of ‘between’ that gets complex– in first-person narratives that are fiction, the narrator is often revealed by his judgments. One metaphor a friend of mine really likes is that the narrator of a first-person story is the ‘scratch on the lens’– the distance between what can be see to be true and what is said is such that the narrator is revealed. To what extent that happens in a nonfiction narrative, it seems, and how far ‘forward’ the writer comes are related, but not always the same. I suppose ‘rising to the level of protagonist’ is a good benchmark, but there’s a lot of room between, as you’re pointing out… and of course, what’s funny about the idea of protagonist and narrator not necessarily being the same is that there’s a long tradition in much of America’s canonical fiction of having narrator’s who quite nearly refuse to really be protagonists, though the qualities and intensity of their interest and their own judgments do nonetheless reveal them (I’m thinking of Moby Dick, “Heart of Darkness,” and The Great Gatsby… though we could include the Russians if we wanted to talk about a unified collection of stories, even, like Isaac Babel’s “Red Cavalry” as doing the same).

      Certainly an art and not a science, as uncertain a distinction as that may be.

  40. Michael Copperman

      {and I didn’t mean narrators to possess anything, just to be plural}

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