Listening to One Another: A Defense of the Memoir Genre
February 21, 2011 § 35 Comments
Our managing editor Liz Stephens, a PhD candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University and author of the smart, surprising “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back” in the Fall 2010 issue of Fourth Genre, responds to Neil Genzlinger’s recent attack on the memoir genre:
Dozens of memoirs line the discount table at my local chain bookstore. The slim edge of one book there makes me thrust my hand out in front of another customer before she can lower her own hand onto what might as well have been WWII silk stockings. I want it. Let her huff. She probably wanted the one about getting happy next to my choice anyway. She probably thinks my choice is inexplicable. She might have dropped my choice like a hot tamale. It’s Mark Doty’s Dog Years. And in fact, the book does change, if not my life, then my entire week, and everything I write for a few days.
Would everyone be moved by this book? Absolutely not. Cat people, for starters. People looking for plot, maybe. Looking for muggles or mysteries. On the other hand, on the list of preoccupations I share with Doty: a) pets. B) death. C) New York City in the Eighties. D) fathoming how our loved ones make us face the uncomfortable in everything. How we come out of it, not holy, but better.
Would Neil Genzlinger like my book, Genzlinger who recently in the New York Times expressed his dissatisfaction with that state of memoir publishing? I’d guess not. Presumably he’s over in the aisle with Lee Iacocca autobiography, Pete Sampras, Ronald Reagan. People who’ve Done Something.
But I’m not one of those people. And so how they’ve lived their lives does not interest me, unless their lives are suddenly very relevant to me (my new president) or much later have historical value (Ben Franklin). But me, I will always be mired in the everyday. Still, my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters. Other people may go to the top of a mountain when their partner dies, and may subsequently write about it, but I for one am more likely, should that scenario come to pass, to do what Doty did. To sit on the bed I’ve recently shared with the deceased and stare at my dog, wonder what he thinks of the whole precious and fraught debacle of our human lives. Every big moment is only, it seems to me, while you’re feeling it, small moments stacked up. I resist anyone’s story that tells me differently. And, gee, I’m just not planning on starting a car company.
“There was a time,” Genzlinger writes, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir.” Well, yes and no. It’s true that early autobiography was usually the domain of the celebrated, both in America and abroad. But there have always been the Saint Augustines, of course; and he was a “nobody,” a monk who told us for hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the fifth century, that some days one considers one’s bellybutton and some days one feels the presence of God. So is there a precedent for “nobodies” telling their own stories? Doesn’t this tradition have its own rich history?
In 1906, an editor from New York published a book of “lifelets,” called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as told by Themselves. Butcher, bootblack, dressmaker, cook, nurse, minister. Putting aside the historical value of work like that, which is immeasurable, did it sell? It did.
It ushered in thirty hot and heavy years of writing, and a permanent precedent, for memoir by “ordinary Americans.” E. B. White, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, John Cheever all started as light memoir writers.
Nevertheless, am I interested in all the memoirs out today? Heck no. Some of them I think are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Let’s be honest, you think it too. But what supreme elitism to suppose those might not speak to other readers. The fact that I turn my nose up at some memoir I consider a matter of personal taste, and certainly while my brand of “taste” has been validated by a sort of educated cultural elite, only extreme myopia would lead me to think no other “taste” might be considered worse or better. Furthermore, you can bet there are a thousand people you’ll walk by today who are not interested in lyric essay, disjunctive timeline narrative, any of the markers of high literature which might otherwise absolve a memoir from a humble authorship. Are we all literati? Should we be?
Ben Yagoda, in his book Memoir from which I drew the early century memoir examples above, points out that the appeal of writing by “ordinary” Americans at the time might have been the contrast to other, bleaker, views of the culture; may be, I point out, the contrast these polyphonic voices offer to a more consensual view of any place or culture. We’re all these things, like it or not. We can’t keep Wallace Stegner and not claim Britney Spears (I mean, can we?). We are as much Karr’s Liar’s Club as we are Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. We’re as much Dillard’s An American Childhood as we are Harry Crew’s A Childhood. And, because we’re keeping it real here, we are as much the woman in Eat, Pray, Love as we are that guy in Tuesdays with Morrie. I haven’t read Tuesdays, because I’m guessing its tone wouldn’t appeal to me, but do I know the way we as a culture deal with aging is an issue for me too? Yeah. I’m just going to have to find that lesson elsewhere, but I’m glad that book synthesized that lesson for so many people.
And do I supposed some memoir about the ubiquitous damage of growing up white and middle-class in a divorced family….well, honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a subject that has zero to do with me, that’s my best attempt at a book I think may not need to be written….but if I find that book, a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?
Can Genzlinger tell the woman down the subway stop from him what she should consider worth her time, just because an experience in a text does not speak to him? Some people write for the New York Times. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about their pets. Some people just want to sit down and have a laugh after a long day at work. It’s okay.
What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet. I’ve read a lot of memoir, since the start of recorded history, and so when I say always, I mean always, since we could write and eventually publish: we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.