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.