Too Many Memoirs? Another Cranky Attack

January 31, 2011 § 21 Comments


Neil Genzlinger, staff editor at The New York Times, offered up a particularly cranky complaint about ‘too many memoirs’ in the Book Review yesterday. I find it fascinating that Genzlinger and others still get so incensed about the presence of memoirs — people write them, you can read them, or you can choose not to.  But certain folks feel offended, violated, it seems, by the mere existence of these books, and I’m tempted to get my psychology degree just to learn what is going on inside their brains.

Genzlinger complains, for instance:

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 …

And:

No one wants to relive your misery. Say you get stuck under a rock and have to cut off your own arm to escape. If, as you’re using your remaining hand to write a memoir about the experience, your only purpose in doing so is to make readers feel the blade and scream in pain, you should stop. You’re a sadist, not a memoirist; you merely want to make readers suffer as you suffered, not entertain or enlighten them.

The problem with Genzlinger’s argument, and most similar anti-memoir attacks, is that he is not arguing against the writing of memoir, he is arguing against badly-written memoirs.  In his essay, he ‘reviews’ three recent memoirs that he finds particularly egregious, to prove his point.

Well, exactly.  If you write badly, shallowly, without discovery into your life because you have had “cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight … taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child” then you will have written badly, and the book will be a bad book.  That doesn’t indict an entire genre.

Oh well.  New York has been in a cold snap lately.  All this recent hot air might serve a purpose.

 

–Dinty

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§ 21 Responses to Too Many Memoirs? Another Cranky Attack

  • Renee says:

    Another great post, Dinty!

    Please keep them coming!

  • Yes! Exactly, Dinty. This is my problem with the review. It’s a badly written review attacking memoir because some of them are badly-written. So unless you want to come to the defense of the books in question, really the only thing debatable in the entire thing is his snarky tone, or his persona on the page, which does seem more than a little self-indulgent as a choice for a reviewer . . . almost as if he’s guilty of the very sort of writing that he bemoans.

  • Joe says:

    There is something to be gained, in a theoretical sense, from looking at doesn’t work well (what isn’t successful) and deciding thusly what *does* work well. I often tell my students that they can learn much about their own essays by studying what’s unsuccessful (in their critical thinking) in other essays. But perhaps the enterprise of memoir criticism in general would be better served if reviewers discussed books that work well—not with blind admiration as we see in so many reviews, but balanced and with honesty.

  • I so agree with you. My first thought was, the guy is having a bad day. But it became clear that HE was the crappy writer. He didn’t even understand what he was really writing. Because what it all boiled down to was an argument against bad writing. Yes! I agree. There are some really bad memoirs out there. There are also some really bad novels out there too. It all comes down to the question of whether our writing, no matter what the genre, aspires to art.

  • Thank you, Dinty, for providing the perspective that grumpy Genzlinger needed. Your site more than any other reminds us–It’s always about THE WRITING! The BEST writing. Hello–

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Nick Neely and bryan parys, dinty@brevity. dinty@brevity said: Too Many Memoirs? Another Cranky Attack: http://t.co/Y7IVE83 […]

  • Gabriel Scala says:

    Couldn’t agree more. Thanks for posting this.

  • As others have pointed out, there are some terrible memoirs out there. In fact, I think David Shields and John D’Agata have both written eloquent critiques of a certain type of memoir– the ones that seem too pefectly plotted, formulaic, more like a melodramatic novel than an actual reflection on the author’s life, experiences, and ideas. Certainly, talking about why those books don’t really “work” is a worthwhile enterprise.

    But I don’t think that’s the type of thing Mr. Genzlinger is trying to do here– instead, he wants to take an entire form to task because some people do it badly. It makes as much sense as pronouncing novels irrelevant and sub-literary because Dan Brown and Danielle Steele write them.

  • […] most recently by someone at the New York Times, as has been recently noted by Sam Ligon at Bark and Dinty Moore at Brevity’s blog.  Dinty’s response is my favorite so […]

  • Joe says:

    For what it’s worth, Roger Ebert has weighed in on his fb page: “Not very encouraging while writing my memoirs. Thank God tragedy struck to make my life a little more interesting. Otherwise, there’s just a happy childhood, success, honors, and covering myself with talcum powder to ride bareback with Elizabeth Taylor and Mickey Rooney. Oh, what a night it was!”

  • it would be interesting to see if the upsurge in memoir publishing has correlated with the downsurge in first novels being published. I would argue that the memoir, especially by a young writer, is often the equivalent of the first novel, both in tone and quality. as first novels have become much less commercially viable, literary writers eager to break will sometimes write a “memoir”, a form publishers still wager on because it produces more best-sellers than first novels. it would be a shame for publishers to back away from memoirs, and if the NYT stops reviewing them, they may well, because they will not go back to publishing first novels.

    • Michael says:

      “I would argue that the memoir, especially by a young writer, is often the equivalent of the first novel, both in tone and quality.” —
      I once heard an editor at the Times Book Review say exactly this.

  • Eve says:

    Writer’s conferences are also very cranky about memoirs.
    I dragged my scared, memoir-writing husband with me and he was told all war memoirs have already been written. When we came home,my favorite writing magazine had a special section devoted to memoirs and how difficult it is to get them published. My twenty years of confidence building was destroyed in one month. Thus,he will not be sharing his inspirational story with anyone but me.

  • Lynn says:

    I read that article and I wondered why it was written as an attack. Bad books don’t sell so bad memoirs are naturally dispelled from the marketplace if they lack substance or elegance. For a writer, isn’t that punishment enough? It’s awful to think others do not value what you have spent so much time producing.

    The running commentaries freely posted on social networking sites is reason enough to discourage a memoir writer! How many of them are worth reading? Authors willing to try a memoir are either already famous individuals or someone who is powerfully compelled to share what they see as their unique life experience for the purpose of educating or enlightening readers. Writing a memoir is a noble mission, known to be emotionally draining. No genre should be painted with a broad brush like that, particularly a memoir which is so personal and individualistic. Idea for a non-fiction article: WHY he wrote it? The back story. What had he just read?

  • Dorothy Alexander says:

    As an antidote to the NY Times article, read the series of features Guernica Magazine is running this month edited by Deb Olin Unferth who seeks out innovative memoir and has several recommendations. She says, “Let’s have no more insults hurled at the memoir, shall we?”

  • Jerry Waxler says:

    Great points, Dinty, and a nicely written post. I think there are other reasons some people are cranky about memoirs. There is an elitist perspective at the heart of this piece that insinuates you have to be important in order to be worth noticing.

    It’s interesting that you mentioned a psychology degree because I think memoirs are essentially a psychological genre. I think memoir readers and writers know this, and want to understand the people they live with, while the cranks would rather only pay attention to important people. I say, Let them eat cake.

    Jerry
    Memory Writers Network

  • Mary Hertslet says:

    If there is validity to the author’s article attack, I think, perhaps it could be the fact that we are living in some bad times ourselves. Some people have lost their homes, their jobs, a family member in the war; and America, itself is in peril . People might be too involved in their own problems to want to read about anyone else’s problem dealing with illness, drugs and other abuse, etc.

    With that said, I love memoirs and I’m in the midst of writing one myself. I just wanted to try to figure out the mindset of the author and his article.

    mary hertslet

  • […] But before I wrote him back, I was glad to come across this response. […]

  • […] most recently by someone at the New York Times, as has been recently noted by Sam Ligon at Bark and Dinty Moore at Brevity’s blog.  Dinty’s response is my favorite so […]

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