Memoir is Not Journalism, Is It?

January 8, 2013 § 11 Comments

CaptureWe have tried for three days to respond to the kerfuffle that has arisen based on Susan Shapiro’s NYT blog piece which resulted in Hamilton Nolan’s Gawker take-down of Shapiro and her tawdry, profit-grubbing approach (he claims), followed by Amanda Marcotte’s Slate take-down of memoirist Elizabeth Wurtzel and  journalism students who fail to focus on the larger world around them, headlined ” … Memoir Finally Hits  Bottom.”

We tried, down here on the bottom, and then couldn’t say anything coherent, and then erased our blog reaction, and then tried again, and then got befuddled, and erased again … In brief, we just couldn’t wrap our little heads around it.


We are so used to creative nonfiction programs in English departments coming under attack for our navel-gazing ways that it took us a while to realize this was all about J schools, and budding journalists, and all of a sudden we sort of agreed with Nolan, despite his snarky, uninformed take on things. Or did we?  It still boggles.

Help us out  please. Are they really teaching memoir in journalism schools?  Should they be? Or is it just Susan Shapiro, stuck in the wrong department?  Anyone have any experience, inside information?  Comments encouraged.

Here are the links

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§ 11 Responses to Memoir is Not Journalism, Is It?

  • Nope, memoir is most emphatically not journalism. But j-schools, some of them, have belatedly responded to the surge in popularity/interest in personal and narrative nonfiction. It’s good, I think. Good for journalism schools to—at last—try to teach writing.

    Or is it desperate, a too-late attempt to staunch hemorrhaging student enrollments? See, I get confused too . . .

    But I did write a whole blog post on this phenomenon, when I saw that University of Alabama’s j-school was “integrating creative nonfiction” in its graduate track:

  • Janice Gary says:

    It’s rare that journalism and memoir mix well. I went to a cnf graduate school where most of the profs were journalists– excellent journalists who were in the cnf camp (and many of them had written memoirs). But their background in journalism made it difficult for many of them to understand the difference between “making things up” and attempting to recreate experience truthfully through the subjective lens of memory. I actually think that if they have to chose, memoir writers are better served learning from poets and novelists than journalists. Or teachers who have walked the memoir path themselves, writers who really get it – like Susan Shapiro.

    • In my experience as a recently graduated MFAer, creative nonfiction and memoir need to be taught by essayists, memoirists, science and history writers. People like Sharman Apt Russell, who is superb. A journalism background does not necessarily prepare anyone to coach other forms of nonfiction writing. Not at all.

  • megscottharris says:

    Journalism is news, based on facts, without subjective interpretation. Memoir is subjective, and it is certainly so when it refers to one’s most humiliating experience.

  • S.O.S says:

    Journalism and memoir are two different beasts. I’m a firm believer that everyone has an interesting story to tell (including the journalists), but students entering journalism school should be focusing on the stories of others. If there is a need for a first-person assignment, why not assign an editorial or something else that continues to hone their understanding and analyses of the world around them?

    She says her key assignment is one where students have to write about their most embarrassing experience. When I was an undergrad studying photojournalism, the assignment that caused my heart to sink with fear was the one where we had to go photograph and interview total strangers. To me, that’s what journalism does. It pushes students out into the world to meet people, hear their stories, tell their stories.

    My MFA is in nonfiction, and I chose nonfiction because I thought it would complement my experience in journalism, and it does. I still prefer to focus on the stories of others, but I’m not afraid to bring in my own perspective/experience if I think it adds to the story. The best memoirs and first person essays I’ve read are ones where the writer, even though he/she is writing about him/herself, seems secondary to the experience he/she is having or the people he/she is meeting. The story is more about their place in the world than about them, if that makes any sense…

  • morgansc says:

    Here is a blog entry from She Writes, _Memoir Is Not a Trauma Olympics_. Susan Shapiro comments, noting that she is, in fact, teaching journalism.

    Shapiro: “To clarify, I don’t teach poetry or fiction classes or even memoir classes, nor do I teach a class on how to win a Pulitzer Prize for your great American novel. Since 1993 I’ve taught popular 15 week feature journalism classes for adult education programs, MFA students and undergraduates called “Writing for NYC Newspapers and Magazines.” The goal of the class is to “write and publish a great piece by the end of the class” or to get a job, internship or literary agent.”

    Here is a link to the original blog post.

  • Elisabeth says:

    Thanks for a fantastic blog, the issues you raise and the writing that emerges therefrom.

    All the way from Australia, here’s my take in response to this issue, an issue that keeps getting re-hashed in different versions.

    To me genre does not matter as much as the writing itself, the quality of writing that is, however you categorise it.

    Autobiography, as I tend to call memoir, personal journalism and the like, is not confession.


  • I honestly don’t understand how this has become such an issue. Granted I am way way out of the sphere of academia but, really? How have these things become entangled? Why do people who hate memoir read it?

    I have always wondered why when people rail about navel gazing memorists, or who hate the confessional need to be so against it as an entire thing. If it’s not your thing, that’s okay. Or am I too reasonable?

  • rachaelhanel says:

    I once taught a personal essay special topics course within a mass media department. Occasionally the first-person narrative is appropriate for newspapers, magazines, etc., and journalism students need to know how to approach the genre and also realize how it differs from traditional journalism. You definitely don’t want students mixing the two. Today I think it’s even more important for journalism students to distinguish the two since young people have always lived in a world mired in the “confessional.”

  • […] teaching confessional memoir in journalism school?!?" cried Dinty Moore of the nonfiction blog Brevity. Over on Gawker, Hamilton Nolan tore apart Shapiro’s piece (possibly giving her a new […]

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