In Defense of the Young Memoirist: A Summer Reading Guide

July 13, 2010 § 5 Comments

A guest post from our friend Joey Franklin (not pictured below):

Recently, the editors at Oprah’s O Magazine published a snappy summer reading guide called “O’s Declaration of Reader Independence”—a freedom-ringing ten-point manifesto against summer reading “group-think.”

The list includes such liberating notions as

  • #2: the right “to see the movie first,”
  • #7: the right to “be miffed if your friend doesn’t like a book you recommend,” and
  • #9: the right to “declare yourself unmoved by the existential struggles of vampires.”

While much of O’s manifesto feels right, I’m a little skeptical of #8, the right to “ignore memoirs by people who have barely cracked their 30s.” Certainly readers have that right, and certainly anyone can understand why Oprah’s magazine might encourage its readers to avoid young memoirists (particularly the recovering drug addict types), but the many babies thrown out with that bathwater deserve a little more consideration than the article suggests.

So to Oprah’s readers and to anyone else who may be feeling a little wary of young memoirists, I offer five books that challenge the notion that twenty- and thirtysomething writers have little to offer the reading public:

1. Notes from No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss. Winner of the Graywolf Prize for Nonfiction and a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. David Shields called Notes “An utterly beautiful and deeply serious performance.”

2. For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs, by Kathleen Rooney. Katherine Boyle wrote, “Echoing Joan Didion’s The White Album, Rooney’s personal essays turn into a freeze-frame of life in the U.S.”

3. Opa Nobody, by Sonya Huber. Shortlisted for the Saroyan prize. Lee Martin said, “Opa Nobody is a brave book of politics, history, and love—a book filled with an irrepressible embrace of humanity.”

4. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, by Ander Monson. Another Graywolf Prize winner. Steven Poole of the Guardian wrote that Monson “has a miniaturist, free-associative humour, which is what you want in an essayist.”

5. What Becomes You, by Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz. According to Floyd Skloot, “What Becomes You is a radically strange, deeply moving, unique book, a mother and child story like none you’ve ever read.”

And, of course, there are many, many more.

Do you know one that should be on this list? Let us know.

Happy summer reading.

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§ 5 Responses to In Defense of the Young Memoirist: A Summer Reading Guide

  • jenneandrews says:

    I still contend, in many pieces at Loquaciously Yours, that young writers writing memoir is an oxymoron. The word has been appropriated to legitimize a subgenre looking for a name; let’s find one. Memoir requires perspective, time, distance, life experience no matter how well-written someone’s self-reflections are. Jenne’ Andrews

    • Boo hissss to Oprah and anyone else who tries to suggest that you need a license to write in one form or another. Sorry, but that’s just wrong. Memoir, or any other form, shouldn’t “require” as much as “allow.” Memoir can/should be a journey toward understanding and reflection. Age is not a prerequisite for this trip.


  • Debbie Hagan says:

    Lucy Grealy wrote Autobiography of a Face when she was thirty-one–leading readers on her heartbreaking journey as a child who had been disfigured, due to a rare form of jaw cancer. Good thing that she wrote this beautiful memoir when she did, because she was dead by forty. And it’s a good thing Sylvia Plath didn’t let immaturity stop her either. So many young women have identified with her struggles.

    No, writing is an art that’s inspired, and a writer must catch the muse when it’s there. It’s ridiculous to think that a writer has to be “old enough” to effectively tell a personal story.

  • Janice Gary says:

    I agree. Any question about whether a young writer could write a good memoir was erased when I read Jill Christman’s “Darkroom.” The writing, the structure, the voice…amazing. To write good memoir it’s true that you need some distance from what you are writing about. I certainly didn’t have the maturity and distance to write about the core issues of my life at 20 or 30, but that doesn’t mean other don’t. Interesting how young novelists are celebrated but young memoirists are doubted. Just another version of the “who are you to write about your life?” bias that dogs the genre.

  • Keri B. says:

    I agree. I’m 29 and I just finished writing a memoir (called IV League) about the two years I did in prison after I got arrested with $50,000 of heroin during my senior year at Cornell.

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