On the Value of Women’s Memoir: A Response to Alexandra Fuller’s “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.”
February 27, 2019 § 26 Comments
By Zoë Bossiere
Earlier this month in the New York Times Book Review section, writer Alexandra Fuller took three recent memoirs to task, including Reema Zaman’s I Am Yours: A Shared Memoir, Sophia Shalmiyev’s Mother Winter, and Pam Houston’s Deep Creek: Finding Hope in the High Country, in one brief but cutting review.
Fuller begins her article with the blithe suggestion that Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston should seek counseling, writing, “At their worst, there’s little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional.” She then goes on to enumerate the ways each of these writers’ books is “poorly conceived,” dubbing the works both “special-interest” and “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape.” At one point Fuller even uses the tired phrase “navel-gazing” in reference to Zaman’s memoir, a book about the devastating effects of silence on women’s safety and well being, which Fuller deems too narrow in scope to truly “inspire the reader.” According to Fuller, what distinguishes a “good” memoir from a “bad” one is the ability to “reach beyond itself,” though how this should be accomplished is limited to comparing these works unfavorably to Maya Angelou’s classic and perennial I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Fuller’s is an argument nonfiction writers have heard many times before—writing about the self has been subject to this kind of withering scrutiny since the days of Michel de Montaigne, who famously prefaced his work with a warning to the reader that it “would be unreasonable to spend your leisure on so frivolous and vain a subject” as a book entirely about him. No, not even the great-grandfather of the nonfiction essay was immune to this variety of criticism, and not much has changed since the 16th century in that respect. There will always be readers to whom the memoir does not appeal, and that’s okay; no book can be all things to all people. Still, it’s always shocking when the condemnation of the genre comes from one of our own, especially from a memoirist as widely celebrated in the writing community as Alexandra Fuller.
As a teacher of creative nonfiction workshops, I am constantly reminding students—and particularly the young women in my class—that their writing has intrinsic value. Many of the stories my students choose to share from their lives are intensely personal. They write about surviving sexual assault, losing family members, struggling with addiction, living in the United States as the child of immigrants, as a person of color. I encourage them to write toward the truth they’d most like to tell, toward the audience they’d most like to pick up their future book, without concerning themselves with what good writing is “supposed” to do.
Contrary to what Fuller says, nonfiction, and especially memoir, does not have to “be inspiring” or “reach beyond itself” to any great or meaningful extent. In fact, many wildly successful books don’t—think heavy hitters like David Sedaris and Karl Ove Knausgaard, the latter of whom has written not one but ten plodding autobiographical novels to warm commercial reception. Both of these writers tackle almost exclusively personal subjects, detailing the minutiae of their lives in a way that might be labeled “confessional” if they were women. The only real difference I can see between their books and the memoirs Fuller mentions is that Sedaris and Knausgaard are men.
Writer and feminist Adrienne Rich put it best when she wrote how “women have been driven mad, ‘gaslighted,’ for centuries by the refutation of our experience and our instincts in a culture which values only male experience.” This sentiment is still demonstrably alive and well in the writing world today. Readers seem to have a great deal more patience for male writers, whose work is far more likely to be published than women’s, according to the latest VIDA Count, despite men being outnumbered by women in MFA programs across artistic disciplines. Male writers are also more likely to receive free publicity for their work in the form of book reviews, interviews, and other opportunities.
I don’t claim to know how Fuller personally feels about writers like Sedaris or Knausgaard, but I can’t help but question her choice to negatively review Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s memoirs as “navel gazing” books with little substance—even if she personally didn’t care for the work. Because, in doing so, articles like Fuller’s quietly perpetuate the sexism already lurking in the writing world.
By this, I don’t mean to imply that a woman cannot be in any way critical of another woman’s work. As writers, critique is the air we breathe—a welcome and necessary component of the writing process. But to broadly lambaste the memoir genre using three recent examples by women—and from a position of privilege and power as a book reviewer for The New York Times—is difficult to justify under the umbrella of constructive criticism, especially when one considers the subtext of some of Fuller’s statements:
To write that a memoir is “poorly conceived” suggests that the writer should have written her book differently in order to better fit what “good” or “successful” writing is supposed to look like. To write that a published, otherwise well-received memoir is not a “successful” book is to imply it is not worth reading. To imply that a memoir is not worth reading is to dismiss the value of the story it tells. To dismiss the value of this story is to dismiss the woman telling it.
There are so many women writers who look up to Fuller and aspire to her level of craft, myself included. As an established memoirist and a woman, herself, Fuller should know her words have the power to silence those in earlier, less confident stages of their careers.
In The Mother of All Questions, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that silence, once imposed, is a highly effective weapon. “A free person tells her own story,” Solnit writes. “A valued person lives in a society in which her story has a place.” In a political climate where women, people of color, and queer-identifying writers are in very real danger of losing basic rights and freedoms, we need to make places for these stories, perhaps now more than ever before.
Because when Fuller writes that these memoirs are “neither sufficiently escapist for beach reads, nor sufficiently wise to offer the means to escape,” her words imply they do not have a place on our society’s figurative bookshelf. That they are neither casual enough for light leisure reading, nor analytical enough for its heavier, high-brow counterpart. But memoir does not exist solely within the binary of guilty pleasure and intellectual rigor. There is room within the genre for stories that exist between, even outside of this spectrum. Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston’s books each bear witness to the interiority of the human condition. Their voices are unique to their experiences, and contribute to our collective understanding of our world. That should be enough.
In one final strange twist of irony, Fuller quotes Maya Angelou in her review, writing: “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.” It would seem Fuller has neglected to heed, as it were, her own advice. The memoir is not going anywhere, and the writing world is harsh enough as it is. As women, we have a responsibility to hold each other up throughout our careers, and not to pull the proverbial ladder of opportunity up behind us. We have a responsibility to value each other’s stories, even when others don’t. And this is what I most want my students to take with them as the writers of tomorrow.
**The essays quoted above include “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying” by Adrienne Rich and “A Short History of Silence” from The Mother of All Questions by Rebecca Solnit.
Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She also serves as Brevity’s Managing Editor. Find more on her website at zoebossiere.com, and on twitter @zoebossiere
Writing a memoir myself, set in a country few know much about, in a time already obliterated, I face the injunctions to stick to the ‘theme’, when the ‘theme’ is the slow rising of identity. The stories to achieve that identity are rich with characters, and richer in events.
I suspect it will struggle to find a publisher because memoir now seems to have to almost have a plot line-the straight arrow from ‘then’ to ‘now all is light’. Yet the memoirist is prohibited from the other freedoms of fiction! Held to the constraints of ‘fictional story’ but denied its liberty.
I agree wholeheartedly with these arguments against Alexandra Fuller’s review. She, herself, failed to incorporate much wisdom into her own memoirs. The role of patriarchy debilitates women, and will continue to do so, unless we ignore the message they send through sometimes deceitful means. I think we all feel betrayed by Alexandra. All the more fuel to fire our truths.
“According to Fuller, what distinguishes a ‘good’ memoir from a ‘bad’ one is the ability to ‘reach beyond itself,’ ” and I agree with Fuller. I cannot comment on the specific books she reviews since I have not read them, though I have read Fuller’s review. But “wildly successful” or not, I have no patience with memoirs that seem too firmly focused on the writer’s personal suffering to the exclusion of any perspective or humor or truth. I have no patience with bad metaphors.
Written by a woman or man, failure to look outward, to recognize responsibility, or to grow in any way in the telling is the definition of navel-gazing. This is understandable when the writer’s goal is to tell a story for personal satisfaction or as a sort of therapy. Publishing and selling books is not, by itself, a measure of greatness. The great memoirs I have read (and I count Angelou’s among them) offer something beyond woe-is-me-see-how-I-suffered.
And perhaps Fuller was unfair to these three memoirs. I cannot say, but silencing or gaslighting women does not seem to have been her goal. She asks for better memoir. So might I.
Thank you for your reasoned and well-articulated response. I do think it’s fine for a reviewer to ask for a “better” memoir, though I question Fuller’s decision to do that in quite this way—three memoirs packed together as examples of “what not to do” and with so little substance about each book that even the writers (Zaman, Shalmiyev, and Houston) are left wondering whether Fuller actually read them. But that is perhaps a speculation for another day!
I don’t mean to imply in my response that one should read any memoir one does not find appealing—only that memoir does not have to “be inspiring,” “reach beyond itself,” or be more like Maya Angelou’s work in order to be a successful or valuable piece of literature. (If Angelou were the standard to which all writers held themselves, many a memoir would never have been written!)
The issue I take with Fuller’s review is not that it is “bad” or “too critical,” but rather the dismissive nature of her tone. Her insistence that these women’s stories (in particular) are not valuable or important because they don’t meet her expectations about what a “good” memoir should look like. As I mention above, memoir exists on a spectrum and there is more than one valid way to write your story.
And then there are the gendered implications as well. For example, why don’t male writers have to worry about getting “too personal” for fear of their writing being called out by reviewers as “naval-gazing” or “better suited for a mental health professional”? I have rarely seen the same criticisms levied against books—even deeply personal books—written by men.
Thank you, Zoe, for your thoughtful response. “I have rarely seen the same criticisms levied against books—even deeply personal books—written by men.” It’s possible that you are perfectly correct about that, but I would certainly welcome that same criticism regardless of the gender of the author. In what we hope to find in memoir, we appear to disagree.
Refreshing and honest look at the state of our literary grosse-politik. As a wounded veteran of the sexual revolution myself in the 70’s, I abandoned my MFA program in London and came home to clean up the mess I made of my early abusive marriage. I turned to community organizing while my son grew up, then the law and now I am 65 with three wonderful grandchildren. I still write and edit for a small press in Cleveland, but view my lack of literary output as a road not taken, but one that often leads to nowhere. Male responsibility is the father of love, and loveless art, however beautiful is not pretty. Mille grazie!
‘Loveless art is not pretty’. Well said. Too much egotism makes for brutalism in literature, music and sculpture.Difficult to define but instantly recognisable.
Thank you so much for writing this! So many of us women write memoir with the fear of “Nobody cares about my life and I’m just being self-absorbed.” When I discuss this with my male writer friends, they have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s not a fear they recognize.
I actually laughed at loud at the “navel-gazing” comment. It’s memoir! Whose navel are you supposed to gaze into? Winston Churchill’s?
Thank you so much for writing this!! The navel-gazing stance is absurd, especially considering Knaussgard. What woman would dare essentially narrate going to the bathroom, staring out the window, and other mundane parts of life the way he does, on page after page after page? Love him or hate him, he has made a living “navel gazing” in the extreme. Women should be afforded the same privilege.
Thank you Zoe!
Zoë Bossier’s piece is so well-written that I ran off to look at the Fuller review immediately, hoping to disagree with Fuller. But upfront: I’ve always been a big admirer of Fuller’s work, and what I admire–that it tells the truth straight out and that the truths apply to more than just her own life–is what made me agree with her assessment. Maya Angelou was writing across the grand backdrop of growing up poor and African-American in pre-civil rights and pre-second-wave feminism America. When Angelou writes about being raped as an eight-year-old there’s not an ounce of self-pity in her description. There’s instead a keen balance between what she understood as a child and what she understood years later, when she was grown. That’s why her work is triumphant, and I’d say the same of Fuller’s first two memoirs–I was less fond of the last. Helen Fremont also writes against the grand backdrop of World War Two and anti-Semitism. But the memoirs reviewed by Fuller seem mainly about “the bad thing that happened to me” whereas what I look for is “how I got over the bad thing that happened to me” or “how I gained a new perspective on the bad thing that happened to me.” I look for the reader’s confiding, not her confession.
I feel compelled to wonder, after reading both Fuller’s piece and your critique of it: for whom is a memoir written? And do we have to answer that question at all, and is there only one way to answer it? I’m no master of memoir although I’ve had some success with personal essays. And while I can agree there has got to be some objective criteria most of us would use to judge a memoir, especially in terms of the writing and craft, it also seems to me that in some ways, isn’t memoir the least able to be judged precisely because of how it springs from or off of the author? What I as the reader want or expect from the memoir almost doesn’t matter, does it? Unless it matters to the author. And for many authors, of course, what the reader wants and expects does matter. But again, memoir is so blended. If a memoirist were to compose a memoir thinking primarily about the reader, I don’t know – that just sounds wrong, except in a memoirist’s desire for the reader to want to keep reading and feel satisfied in reading the effort.
This has become such an interesting discussion—how seldom does that happen online?
I think our reasons for writing anything are necessarily personal, unless they are purely commercial—which is an entirely different conversation. The reviewer in TNYT expresses an opinion about “masterly” memoirs and those that fail to “burn through the ‘me’ of the genre.” Since I have only read and not written much memoir, perhaps I am more on her side than other writers hoping to publish?
It seems to me she has as much right to her opinion as the editor who condemns a novel as too quiet or the poem as trivial. Quiet novels and trivial poems have their place, but a reviewer of published works is as free as the writer to judge their value. It is her job and in her title: “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Reading About It Is Another Matter.” I get that “navel-gazing” is a hot button expression. However, like her, I want my memoirist to look up from his or her personal experience now and again. My reading of her review did not reveal a sexist bias, but then she totally had me on board with the unfortunate rhino horn metaphor.
Smiling, yes, I agree with you on these points, for sure. Your sentiments about not silencing the writers or would-be writers resonated very strongly for me and I think my comment probably comes from that experience. Also, I definitely have been disappointed by memoirs that seem to distance the story from the memoirist (I Will Find You comes to mind by Joanna Connors – incredibly brave but I do think a certain distance was maintained, even though it clearly was a deep effort on the author’s part, and perhaps more narrative non-fiction than memoir? I’m not sure) or are just not well-written (I am not on the Hillbilly Elegy bandwagon for example – it was just a terrible read to me, and also not entirely memoir but some narrative non-fiction we would say, right?). I also don’t love Herman Alexie the way many others do. Also, I probably just need to read more but will confess, I only have a passing familiarity with Ms. Fuller – I remember reading about her some time ago but did not have an interest in reading her works. In any case, I really enjoyed this piece by you, I really enjoy reading and learning from Brevity and I appreciate you taking time to respond. Interesting online discussions used to be an enormous part of my writing on and off the job – but then you might expect that from someone whose blog’s title is Writes Like She Talks. 😉
Jill, it sounds like our tastes might be similar. Wish we were in the room together. 😉 (I haven’t read Fuller outside this review, but thought Alexie’s memoir about his mother was a disaster, and Hillbilly Elegy . . . well, he does try to connect to the world, though I do not care for his conclusions and politicized judgements.) I read widely, and always have, but I am particular and perhaps arbitrary sometimes in what I like and do not. Nevertheless, I absolutely agreed with Fuller’s opening remarks and I DO want a memoir to achieve more than the recounting of a terrible experience. I regard that as more personal preference than character flaw. Haha!
she has written some of the best books I have read and I have read a lot
Correction – I enjoyed your comment – I do realize you are not the author of the column, my apologies for the confusion.
Thank you for this perspective. I had similar thoughts when I read the review!
I enjoyed all of Fuller’s memoirs. But I wonder now what “liberation” and greater meaning she intended with them (as she instructed the other women to do). To me, it was clearly that she had internalised the patriarchal values that she grew up with, and was acting them out to the detriment of herself and other women. I thought she intentionally spelled that out in her own memoirs, but given her dismissive and belittling NYT review of the three women’s memoirs, it appears that the old ghost is rearing its head all the same. Thank you Bossiere for setting us straight with such level-headedness and compassion.
Thank you Zoe. It’s a damn shame we still have to defend our stories as women and writers of Deeply reflective memoir. That Fuller wrote this is disappointing to saythe least. But your words come from a place of dtrength and we will persevere.
I am so grateful to hear a cogent opinion on this opinion! It would not have occurred to me to take in into a feminist frame, and yet I thank you for adding that spice (that I so often can forget). I am now in the process of choosing if my manuscript is a memoir or a literary non-fiction for query to agents, and it is a very deep question, and this topic of validity or “success” cannot be taken lightly. Keep on keeping on.
I have not read the three memoirs that Fuller critiques, although I’ve started Pam Houston’s Deep Creek (and so far, I’m enjoying it). I also have not read Fuller’s memoirs. The problem I have with Fuller’s review is that it doesn’t really help me, as a reader, to decide whether I would want to read these memoirs. She’s too dismissive, making it sound like the memoirs aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Just as when a reviewer gushes over a book, and offers few examples of why she thinks the book is so great, I’m left feeling skeptical about the review, not about the book being reviewed. Maybe she had a word limit for her review; in which case, I would have preferred a more in-depth review of one of the memoirs, not a cursory review of all three. Like some others have mentioned, Fuller left me thinking that she hadn’t read the memoirs through, only enough to decide they didn’t meet her standards. Fuller has every right to her standards and as a reader, I have every right to disagree with her. I don’t read memoirs to be instructed. If, for example, at the end of Deep Creek, Pam Houston is still trying to figure things out, that’s fine with me because I am too and I’m older than she is. Frankly, I find it reassuring to not be alone in that. I think there’s plenty of room in this world for readers who agree with Fuller’s standards for memoirs, and those who don’t. I simply don’t buy Fuller’s suggestion that these three memoirs are not worth reading.
I’m late to this thread but feel compelled to reply, even though I haven’t yet read any of the authors mentioned here, including Fuller. I think people read memoir for different reasons. I like a well-written memoir that lets me get in someone else’s head so that I can, hopefully, recognize a little bit of myself, feel less alone, maybe experience an aha moment of seeing something in a different light. I don’t read memoir to escape or learn how to escape. In “Big Magic,” Elizabeth Gilbert writes, “You are not required to save the world with your creativity.” A little later she writes, “Please don’t try to help me,” which made me laugh. She did save the world with her book of course, by which I mean she helped one writer, me. Hopefully my writing can do the same for someone else.
Women are often shamed when they tell their stories. Many of these stories educate, inspire, and push us to see the world in a new way, or at least understand each other. I always appreciate personal essays. The great majority are helpful and worthy reading. Of course, there are some that are either exploitative or too much navel gazing (not because the subject is unworthy, but maybe an oft-published writer got off easy without enough revisions) but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that memoir isn’t useful. People’s stories matter.