More Memoir Bashing, aka Moore’s Absurd Memoir Bashing
April 25, 2011 § 24 Comments
This time around, the esteemed Lorrie Moore steps up to take a few nasty, arguably bizarre swipes at the memoir field. Honestly, friends, we don’t understand from whence all of this animosity comes, but here we go again.
Moore, writing in The New York Review of Books, begins gently enough, having a quick laugh with Fran Lebowitz and offering up the idea that “there are good reasons to embark on a memoir “:
It is hard not to be impressed with Fran Lebowitz’s comedically acerbic dismissal of memoirs: when asked … whether she would ever pen one, she quickly replied that if your life were all that interesting, someone else would write a book about it.
Despite having some sympathy with this idea, or with caustic wit, or with avoiding writing, one can nonetheless assume that there are good reasons to embark on a memoir: the world and the self collide in a particular way that only you, or mostly you, can narrate; you would like a preemptive grab at controlling the discourse.
Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that Lorrie Moore can hardly wait to let her inner-Neil-Genzlinger out of the cage, revealing barely-suppressed anger with David Shields and suggesting that memoirists are all just money-grubbing prostitutes:
Have you drunk the Reality Hunger Kool-Aid of David Shields’s current “anti-novel jihad” and joined him in chiding the limping dog of fiction as if it were an unfortunate habit of lying, an omnivorous pornography of the real, instead of the struggling but majestic thing that it is? Are you coming into the house of narrative through the back door because the back door is where the money is?
And then she reviews three recent memoirs, seeming to find goodness in all of them, but bemoaning the fact that they aren’t novels, and thus can’t achieve what they might have been achieved had they been rendered in the literary form she most prefers:
(Jill Bialosky’s half-sister) Kim haunts the book like a sweet ghost—one that is perhaps begging to rest at last in a novel, where such inner lives can indeed be recreated or at least imagined with specificity: ironically, the genre of the novel, with its subtle characterizations and rich and continuous dreamscape, remains a kind of gold standard for a genre that may be usurping it.
A strange argument indeed. Bialosky’s sister Kim is “haunting” a memoir about her death, “perhaps begging to rest at last in a novel,” because novels are the gold standard? Do the deceased really have this sort of genre envy? Are we to believe that Bialosky’s sister has some preference in this matter, beyond the grave? Even Genzlinger never channeled the deceased. He restrained himself there.
Moore goes on to say, after dissecting Meghan O’Rourke’s memoir of grief over the death of her mother, that:
Certainly Bialosky’s sister and O’Rourke’s mother remain engaging subjects deserving of the deep imagining, revealing design, and solid construction of heroines in good prose fiction, but real life is messy and sometimes gracelessly crowds out an enduring story, something no memoir reader necessarily expects.
Strange again. Memoir readers don’t expect an enduring story? Really?
So Moore prefers the novel. Okay. She thinks novels allow more “deep imagining, revealing design, and solid construction,” and allow inner lives to be “recreated or at least imagined with specificity.” She is entitled to her opinion, certainly. But it is absurd, I think, to suggest as she does that if you are going to write about someone you love, especially someone you love who is deceased, you should use your imagination and fictionalize them, because that is what they deserve. We are doing them a disservice by choosing an inferior genre? Come on
I’m throwing up my hands here. I just don’t know what to say.
We write memoir. We work very hard to make our memoirs compelling, artful, and true. Why all the hating?
–Dinty W. Moore