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

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§ 24 Responses to More Memoir Bashing, aka Moore’s Absurd Memoir Bashing

  • Antonio Vallone says:

    There’s a simple solution for readers who don’t like memoirs, novels, collections of poetry, or ???, et al.: leave them in libraries and bookstores and check out or buy what you prefer. There’s good and bad examples in every genre. Life’s too short to bash.

  • Laura Tamakoshi says:

    Moore is off the mark: one reason I want to write about my family is that so many are fictionalized already by their offspring who prefer to see them as one-liners and stereotypes than full-bodied, complex, and contradictory characters who real lives are dramatic enough. The key is in the writing of course. There are great memoirists and others not so great.

  • A backlash was inevitable. Although I have not read the whole article, just from these selections I do think that she has a point of a sort. (By the way, I read her to say that the it’s the crowding out of an enduring story that the memoir reader doesn’t necessarily expect, not the enduring story, but it is a tortured sentence, for sure.)

    I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction and wrote a memoir that I struggled to give depth to. Then I combined part of it with the story of an urban neighborhood I’m interested in, to create the beginnings of a novel. Now I can fill in the interior lives of people who were a hell of a lot like my grandmother and mother, and even develop an inner life for my grandmother’s cleaning woman. I’m using all the realistic detail and historical accuracy I learned to use in my MFA program (Goucher). Frankly, I thought that Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns really suffered from that lack of interiority, although it was a magisterial book, just wonderful in all other regards. Now that nonfiction writers are using the techniques of fiction, like anchoring historical research with individual stories, I find that the reader’s experience of the characters can be shallow because the writer, when obeying the rules of nonfiction, can only go so far. The same with building suspense. Sometimes the tools are used but the promise isn’t fulfilled.

    No genre deserves to be bashed but I do think that each writer needs to carefully consider which genre they want to work in, and be willing to be surprised by the answer. And if one has invested in an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, that could be a little awkward!

  • abby frucht says:

    This is a convenient stance for Lorrie Moore to take, since she is a fiction writer who in many of her stories blurs the line between her self and her characters. Other writers, for all sorts of reasons, elect not to do that.

  • There are times when it’s appropriate to write the novel “based on a true story” rather than the memoir: When you simply do not have enough information to render a full story or explain the main character’s actions. That’s when you start making things up and are crossing over into fiction.

  • Moore has sort of been stepping in it a lot lately. There was a sentence in this that I liked, about people missing the difference in craft and form between memoirs and novels. It spoke to the absurdity of all these arguments that dishonest memoirists are writing novels, which they are not. (Making stuff up does not equal writing fiction.)

    But here, for example, Moore claims that the New Yorker publishes more men because women don’t have the nerve to submit: And she’s made some equally absurd statements about the state of writing at other public appearances. It’s getting off-putting.

    And why, exactly, do these review outlets keep assigning memoir reviews to people who don’t like memoirs? What on earth is the point of that?

  • Once again, when it comes to genre-bashing i feel compelled to comment. Why do we care? Everyone is allowed an opinion and it’s good that we don’t all agree. What bothers me most is that the memoirist is so defensive. Who cares what novelists have to say about memoirists?(I am, in fact a novelist myself, twice published, but also a fledgling memoirist, a genre that i love as much as i love fiction) But why do we always have to talk about David Shields? Why do we always have to defend our craft. It’s funny to me but also incredibly tiresome and unoriginal. I love Lorrie Moore. She’s brilliant. But who cares if she doesn’t like memoir? Who cares if David Shield’s wants to say that the novel is dead (hasn’t it been allegedly dead for geneartions) or complain that he stole pretty much everything in his so-called manifesto. Defending the memoir is embarrassing and as writers of novels and memoir and graphic novels and romance novels and, and, and, we only call attention to our own fears when we try to defend ourselves. We write – whatever we write – because we have to. We aspire to art regardless of genre.

  • Heather says:

    Almost all novelists base their work (at least in some events or characters) on their own lives anyway. Everything we know – all our material – is experienced through our own lens, and memoirists just keep it simple by changing little more than names.

  • Sounds to me like the fiction writer feels threatened by the popularity of this upstart genre.

  • Bob Shea says:

    Who’s Lorrie Moore? And why would anyone care what she thinks about memoirs or anything else for that matter? Another insider talking to other insiders.

  • Bradley says:

    The reason that Lorrie Moore’s attack on memoir stings as much as it does, I think, is that Moore is a terrific writer. When ignorant people claim that memoirists and essayists merely “transcribe” while short story writers and novelists “create art,” it’s easy to roll our eyes and come up with some pithy retort about the great “art” created by fiction writers like Glenn Beck or Tim LaHaye. But there’s a sense that a writer as good as Lorrie Moore ought to know better.

    It seems obvious to me that Moore overstaties fiction’s “superiority” in response to David Shields’s pronouncement that fiction is no longer up to the task of telling the types of truth it used to tell– that nonfiction in general and the lyric essay in particular does it better. I can sort of understand why she might be defensive, but I think what she fails to understand is that Shields was making his argument in a literary culture that still undervalues nonfiction– his bombastic declaration that the novel is dead, long live the lyric essay simply turned the tables on those who have asked us, “Nonfiction? Why not write real literature?”

    But honestly, this entire debate about the “artistic value” of one genre over another is getting pretty tired– it’s like trying to argue that an ice cream sundae is “better” or “more of a snack” than potato chips. It seems to me that serious writers ought to be celebrating and promoting good work, regardless of genre. This type of pointless, internecine fighting can only alienate potential readers and is ultimately bad for any of us who actually care about our culture’s literary life.

  • Thank you, Dinty, for your eloquent and energizing response to the Memoir Haters. Makes me recall some incandescent memoirs I’ve read and re-read lately–This Boy’s Life, Poster Child (Emily Rapp’s astonishing memoir), The Invention of Solitude, Teaching a Stone to Talk, Drowning in a Sea of Love, The Language of Blood (Jane Jeong Trenka), Talking Out of School:Memoir of an Educated Woman, and Experience (Amis). My God! These are supposed to become novels in order to be, what? BETTER? I think Laurie Moore has seriously embarrassed herself. You were kind to her.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I agree It’s incredibly boring. I wonder what Montaigne’s critics had to say. Probably a lot of boring kvetching as well. I am bummed that Lorrie Moore wrote this boring article, as I’ve long been a fan of hers (except perhaps for the novel she recently wrote which I found — well — for lack of a better word, boring).

  • bananafish says:

    ‘From whence’ is redundant.

    ‘Whence’ suffices.

  • Lauren Trembath-Neuberger says:

    I’m consistently drawn to nonfiction, and after much soul searching, I don’t think it is because I’m a self-indulgent, narcissistic uncreative person. Or at least I hope it isn’t.

    Honestly, it strikes me as more truthful to just, well, tell the truth. When I try fiction (and this isn’t to say that all fiction is bad, just that *my* fiction is oftentimes bad), it comes off as passive aggressive and sneaky and untrustworthy. And it is because all I am doing, basically, is taking my story and twisting it a little because I’m afraid to admit something about my life. The second I realized I could just write an essay, that I didn’t have to lie or distort or tweak or whatever, that’s when my serious writing began.

    I recently submitted an essay of mine as fiction when it was all nonfiction because someone told me it read better as fiction. I feel incredibly guilty about it; more guilty than if I were to pull a James Frey and just entirely make some shit up. It really strikes me as cowardly to not claim what I wrote, a bit weak to not just believe in the power of my individual experience, unadorned.

    Ugh. What does Moore (who I love, mind you) even mean when she says, “real life is messy and sometimes gracelessly crowds out an enduring story.” Um, yeah? Duh? Isn’t that the point of the memoir? To remind us that we’re all just living our individual lives the best way we fucking know how, and that sometimes art is lost in that process? But then the very best thing, in my opinion, is being able to add shape to your messy life, to develop story where there was before only tedium, to see arcs and beauty and theme when it all just seemed random and dull while living it. I mean, everyone knows memoirists aren’t just taking a tape recorder with them and writing down every second of every day. The art of the memoir is doing exactly what Moore just said: gracefully picking the enduring story out of the mess of real life.

    I mean, yeah, maybe there are some folks who are just in it looking for the money, but how is that different than any multitude of folks who are writing novels? That’s just life.

    Thank you for this response to Moore. I just don’t get the hate. Why isn’t there space for all of us?

  • Bob Shea says:

    “We live life anecdotally.” Joe Bageant, in his Rainbow Pie memoir. Storytelling in other words is how we connect. Nothing new there. Genres don’t matter if the “truth” of the story resonates with the reader. The honesty required for authentic memoir, the ones Rosemarie cited for example, is the same required for any form. William Zinsser in his Writing About Your Life encourages the memoirist to that level of quality. Whatever Moore’s quality as a novelist, she diminishes her personal stature by such idiotic and academic balderdash. Seems to be the curse of English and Lit departments who talk to themselves.

  • jenneandrews says:

    Amen. Her arguments aren’t. xxxj

  • […] review memoirs, but possibly they knew exactly what they were doing. Dinty Moore responds to Moore: I’m throwing up my hands here.  I just don’t know what to say. We write memoir.  We work very … Tags: But Fran was being funny and has a sort of memoir, Dinty Moore raids into battle, humorist, […]

  • As an author of a memoir, I find it funny that those who haven’t written one will take to bashing the genre. I don’t write novels, at least not yet, and there are plenty of simply awful ones out there. But am I taking the time to write about why the entire genre is unworthy? Nope. There are some awful memoirs, self-absorbed and neurotic, but otherrs – like works by Abigail Thomas, for one – that are some of the best writing of any kind I’ve read anywhere.
    Good writing and bad are found in every genre. I think the best way to move forward on this debate is to just shut up and write, don’t you think?

    David W Berner
    Author – Accidental Lessons

  • Bob Shea says:

    I say Amen.

  • Seth says:

    Ripping memoir as an idea is like ripping punk rock or France or, you know, gardening. Moore prefers novels because of the shaping, the focus on narrative, etc. Sure, I can see that. But good memoirs are knock-out good partly because you know there’s a real human behind the particular story. Isn’t there room for novels and memoirs? Of course there is. Maybe it’s that she doesn’t like mediocre or bad memoirs. Neither do I. Also, I think Moore is a fantastic writer.

  • straw man says:

    I don’t have a hot opinion on memoir vs novel, but I find this post disturbing for other reasons. You’re either intentionally misreading Ms Moore or your emotions on this subject have clouded your faculties.

    Another commenter already addressed the grammar issue in the last excerpt, so I’ll leave that one be.

    But the first excerpt you find “strange” mentions a ghost. For some reason, you decide to take this literally. I had to read your paragraph several times to make sure I was interpreting you correctly, but there it is: “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?” That’s not just some facetious statement leading into an actual substantive critique–that’s all there is. There really seems to be nothing else to your objection.

    My rhetorical question is, “Do you believe that Ms Moore was referring to an actual ghost? That she wasn’t employing a common and easily graspable simile? That her point wasn’t simply that novelists develop multiple characters whereas memoirists develop one character?”

    What you are doing is reframing what she actually said into something ridiculous that she *didn’t* say, and then excoriating her for it. I find this disturbing because it not only dishonors the subject of your critique, but it dishonors the reader of your blog, as well.

  • Bradley says:

    Actually, what she *did* say was ridiculous enough– the fact that Dinty has a little fun with the “ghost talk” isn’t what makes Ms. Moore look silly in this discussion (in fact, what you call “a common and easily graspable simile” is what many of us would call a cliché– I wouldn’t presume to speak for Dinty, but I imagine that’s what he was making fun of).

    I do think, Straw Man, that you accidentally make a good point about how we view the people who inhabit our narratives– fiction writers create “characters”; nonfiction writers endeavor to write what they know about actual people. It could very well be that Bialosky could take the raw material of her life and create a fictional character based on her deceased sister, but that’s simply not what she’s trying to do– it’s not what we do in memoir. For Moore to critique this aspect of the form is about as appropriate as someone criticizing “How to Become a Writer” for its lack of a rhyme scheme.

    And seriously– “from whence” is perfectly acceptable usage. Technically, it may be redundant, but you’ve had about seven hundred years to get used to it. Focusing on such a non-issue frankly makes your own argument seem less substantive.

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