A Review of Impossible Owls, Through the Lens of an Impossible Paradigm

June 28, 2019 § 6 Comments

zz owls_By Amy Wright

Know what I think is refreshing? Clean lakes, blue glass, mint mouthwash, and rain. Also, people who express profound emotion or offer insights earned from hard experiences. What I do not find refreshing as a matter of course are essay collections that avoid memoir. So, when the first three reviews I read of Brian Phillips’ debut essay collection, Impossible Owls, described its “refreshing lack of memoir,” I had to wonder why critics were praising what it wasn’t, rather than what it was.

Apparently, memoirs are so in need of humbling, or memoirists in such need of a comedown, reviewers have to work across genre to accomplish it. I get it; I’ve read bad memoirs too. But I’ve also read paltry sonnets and shoddy detective novels without reviewers lauding those working in other modes for avoiding them altogether.

I suspect there’s more at play than genre bias. And if there were too few reviews of Phillips’ collection, which originated on ESPN’s Grantland and MTV News, I would devote more attention to the book itself. As it is, it seems superfluous to trumpet strengths already heralded in popular venues. Instead, I’d like to call attention to how this book’s reception reflects a bias in publishing.

To appreciate why the “refreshing” descriptor is at odds with Impossible Owls, you need to know that it opens with a reportage on the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race titled “Out in the Great Alone.” This thoroughly researched piece details the threats of death to sled dogs, mushers, and any spectator who dares, like the author, to follow the race in a bush plane with a pilot who collects stories of bush plane crashes, and who, according to the book’s acknowledgments, died while leading a training expedition in the Alaskan wilderness.

There are other unrefreshing examples, including “Man-Eaters,” a feature on tigers that have been hunted, killed, and skinned in the jungles of India for over one hundred years; “The Little Gray Wolf Will Come,” an essay into the early work of a Russian animator who fell into a creative block that has lasted over four decades; and “Sea of Crises,” a braided story involving a warehouse fire, a decapitation, and Japan’s cultural shame that the greatest living sumo wrestler was born in Mongolia. Impossible Owls is a provocative, educational, wanderlustful, and beautiful construct, but it is not refreshing.

It is also not published without consideration of a diverse audience. If tiger hunters seem stereotypically masculine, so might the contents of Queen Elizabeth’s handbag, as we learn in “Once and Future Queen,” be deemed feminine. The collection ranges wide from essay to essay, including an investigation into UFO experiencers and a cultural study of sci-fi that Phillips undertakes while healing from a ski accident. Throughout, he does well what nonfiction writers are paid by frequently male editors to do well: he dismisses himself—except to show his hand on the throttle of a plane that he learned to fly in case he needed to land it in an emergency. (I can’t help but read such moments in light of why men are more often solicited for intensive field-research assignments.)

But my issue here is not that Phillips received rare, dream assignments, because he demonstrates the hard work that went into them, but that reviewers fail to notice that these stories are inherently larger than life, and not about him. Instead, they celebrate how Phillips “decentralizes his own presence,” as if centralizing his presence would make sense in this context. Such readings are another form of memoir bashing, which is often misogynistic.

In fact, Phillips does call attention to himself in a number of instances in the book, and not always in flattering postures. He emerges most clearly in the final essay, “Not Your Typical Love Story,” which braids the stories of his grandparents, who drowned together, and an oil baron who marries his niece. Apparently, reviewers who were relieved that Phillips “turns his investigations outward rather than inward” neglected to notice his confession in the final pages.

After his grandparents died, when he was eleven- or twelve-years-old, Phillips went to a child psychologist who asked him if he cried when they drowned. He hadn’t, but he knows that isn’t the right answer. So, he makes up a story that he cried alone in the bathtub, rather than explain how he really felt, which he didn’t trust the psychologist to understand. From there, he begins a search for understanding and the freedom to feel that leads him to the world of books—suggesting, in fact, that Impossible Owls wants to be read as a paean to our capacity to emote and to express ourselves in all the ways we find available to us, which would indeed be refreshing.

Amy Wright is the author of two poetry books, one collaboration, and six chapbooks. Individual essays appear or are forthcoming in Brevity, Fourth Genre, Georgia Review, Kenyon Review, and Ninth Letter. You can find her online at: www.awrightawright.com, and on Twitter @amymwright

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

Another Confused Soul Attacks the Memoir

January 29, 2010 § 8 Comments

Novelist Taylor Antrim, writing in The Daily Beast, jumps on the “memoir is bad” bandwagon with some poorly articulated complaints about two recently released books.  He wants memoirists to write novels instead, and to make stuff up.  Here’s one quote:

“Memoir writing is cheating. I’ve always believed this, even before l’affaire Frey, before fact-checking purportedly true tales of lives lived became a contact sport. And, anyway, by cheating I don’t mean exaggerating the truth. Of course memoirs contain misrepresentations, even outright lies. Has anyone ever told a story about themselves without fibbing a little? (A good story, that is.)”

And then:

“Nowadays avoiding a citizen’s arrest by the memoir police means doing your best to honor how things actually happened. Which, if you ask me, is sort of a shame. Lemon and Flynn have produced very nicely written memoirs that don’t shape the truth nearly enough.”

I’m just confused by his loopy logic.  If you want to be confused too, check it out here: Why Some Memoirs Are Better As Fiction – The Daily Beast.


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