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