The Mysterious (and Messy) Truth of Experience

May 31, 2011 § 2 Comments

Genzlinger and Moore Discuss memoir

The sharp, thoughtful and always to-the-point memoirist Dinah Lenney blogs this week on the recent (or recent-ish) genre attacks by Neil Genzlinger and Lorrie Moore, finding more common ground than most of us with Genzlinger and almost none with Moore.

Here she is on the former:

But it can’t be denied that there are people who come to the genre not because they’re devoted to language and literature, but because, in life, they have triumphed or survived in a way that they think is worth waxing on about; they want to testify: they have a single story to tell. However, this was not true of the authors Genzlinger reviewed at the beginning of this year, and … it was as disrespectful to lump their individual efforts together as typical or endemic, as it was unfair to condemn memoirists everywhere, just because, in his estimation, three writers had failed. But at least Neil Genzlinger’s criticism was straightforward. At least it had something to do with the actual demands of the genre. Though I cringed as I read—and second-guessed my own work—I knew where he stood.

And here she is on the latter:

As far as memoir goes, Lorrie Moore is simply off-track. Memoir is not biography or autobiography, real or imaginary. Moreover, memoir is, every time, at least as much about the narrator as it is about her subject. The writer is the subject, in fact—so it’s not her job to fully imagine, construct, or design, but rather to reveal (creatively, yes, this goes to the prose itself)  the mysterious (and messy) truth of her experience (in conjunction with fact-finding, sure) as it informs the way she thinks and feels. Whether or not the ostensible subjects of either of these books might inspire good fiction (absolutely, why not, another project for another day) is entirely beside the point. Furthermore, in the guise of equivocal appreciation, Lorrie Moore has disparaged not just the work of two writers but the form itself, apparently without understanding its singular constraints and rewards.

And here is Lenney’s full post from The Gamut.

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

Listening to One Another: A Defense of the Memoir Genre

February 21, 2011 § 35 Comments

Our managing editor Liz Stephens, a PhD candidate in nonfiction at Ohio University and author of the smart, surprising “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back” in the Fall 2010 issue of Fourth Genre, responds to Neil Genzlinger’s recent attack on the memoir genre:

Dozens of memoirs line the discount table at my local chain bookstore. The slim edge of one book there makes me thrust my hand out in front of another customer before she can lower her own hand onto what might as well have been WWII silk stockings. I want it. Let her huff. She probably wanted the one about getting happy next to my choice anyway. She probably thinks my choice is inexplicable. She might have dropped my choice like a hot tamale. It’s Mark Doty’s Dog Years. And in fact, the book does change, if not my life, then my entire week, and everything I write for a few days.

Would everyone be moved by this book? Absolutely not. Cat people, for starters. People looking for plot, maybe. Looking for muggles or mysteries. On the other hand, on the list of preoccupations I share with Doty: a) pets. B) death. C) New York City in the Eighties. D) fathoming how our loved ones make us face the uncomfortable in everything. How we come out of it, not holy, but better.

Would Neil Genzlinger like my book, Genzlinger who recently in the New York Times expressed his dissatisfaction with that state of memoir publishing? I’d guess not. Presumably he’s over in the aisle with Lee Iacocca autobiography, Pete Sampras, Ronald Reagan. People who’ve Done Something.

But I’m not one of those people. And so how they’ve lived their lives does not interest me, unless their lives are suddenly very relevant to me (my new president) or much later have historical value (Ben Franklin). But me, I will always be mired in the everyday. Still, my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters. Other people may go to the top of a mountain when their partner dies, and may subsequently write about it, but I for one am more likely, should that scenario come to pass, to do what Doty did. To sit on the bed I’ve recently shared with the deceased and stare at my dog, wonder what he thinks of the whole precious and fraught debacle of our human lives. Every big moment is only, it seems to me, while you’re feeling it, small moments stacked up. I resist anyone’s story that tells me differently. And, gee, I’m just not planning on starting a car company.

“There was a time,” Genzlinger writes, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir.” Well, yes and no. It’s true that early autobiography was usually the domain of the celebrated, both in America and abroad. But there have always been the Saint Augustines, of course; and he was a “nobody,” a monk who told us for hundreds and hundreds of pages, in the fifth century, that some days one considers one’s bellybutton and some days one feels the presence of God. So is there a precedent for “nobodies” telling their own stories? Doesn’t this tradition have its own rich history?

In 1906, an editor from New York published a book of “lifelets,” called The Life Stories of Undistinguished Americans as told by Themselves. Butcher, bootblack, dressmaker, cook, nurse, minister. Putting aside the historical value of work like that, which is immeasurable, did it sell? It did.

It ushered in thirty hot and heavy years of writing, and a permanent precedent, for memoir by “ordinary Americans.” E. B. White, James Thurber, Robert Benchley, John Cheever all started as light memoir writers.

Nevertheless, am I interested in all the memoirs out today? Heck no. Some of them I think are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Let’s be honest, you think it too. But what supreme elitism to suppose those might not speak to other readers. The fact that I turn my nose up at some memoir I consider a matter of personal taste, and certainly while my brand of “taste” has been validated by a sort of educated cultural elite, only extreme myopia would lead me to think no other “taste” might be considered worse or better. Furthermore, you can bet there are a thousand people you’ll walk by today who are not interested in lyric essay, disjunctive timeline narrative, any of the markers of high literature which might otherwise absolve a memoir from a humble authorship. Are we all literati? Should we be?

Ben Yagoda, in his book Memoir from which I drew the early century memoir examples above, points out that the appeal of writing by “ordinary” Americans at the time might have been the contrast to other, bleaker, views of the culture; may be, I point out, the contrast these polyphonic voices offer to a more consensual view of any place or culture. We’re all these things, like it or not. We can’t keep Wallace Stegner and not claim Britney Spears (I mean, can we?). We are as much Karr’s Liar’s Club as we are Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. We’re as much Dillard’s An American Childhood as we are Harry Crew’s A Childhood. And, because we’re keeping it real here, we are as much the woman in Eat, Pray, Love as we are that guy in Tuesdays with Morrie. I haven’t read Tuesdays, because I’m guessing its tone wouldn’t appeal to me, but do I know the way we as a culture deal with aging is an issue for me too? Yeah. I’m just going to have to find that lesson elsewhere, but I’m glad that book synthesized that lesson for so many people.

And do I supposed some memoir about the ubiquitous damage of growing up white and middle-class in a divorced family….well, honestly, I’m having trouble thinking of a subject that has zero to do with me, that’s my best attempt at a book I think may not need to be written….but if I find that book, a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?

Can Genzlinger tell the woman down the subway stop from him what she should consider worth her time, just because an experience in a text does not speak to him? Some people write for the New York Times. Some people spend a lot of time worrying about their pets. Some people just want to sit down and have a laugh after a long day at work. It’s okay.

What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet. I’ve read a lot of memoir, since the start of recorded history, and so when I say always, I mean always, since we could write and eventually publish: we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.

Too Many Memoirs? Another Cranky Attack

January 31, 2011 § 21 Comments

Neil Genzlinger, staff editor at The New York Times, offered up a particularly cranky complaint about ‘too many memoirs’ in the Book Review yesterday. I find it fascinating that Genzlinger and others still get so incensed about the presence of memoirs — people write them, you can read them, or you can choose not to.  But certain folks feel offended, violated, it seems, by the mere existence of these books, and I’m tempted to get my psychology degree just to learn what is going on inside their brains.

Genzlinger complains, for instance:

Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child …


No one wants to relive your misery. Say you get stuck under a rock and have to cut off your own arm to escape. If, as you’re using your remaining hand to write a memoir about the experience, your only purpose in doing so is to make readers feel the blade and scream in pain, you should stop. You’re a sadist, not a memoirist; you merely want to make readers suffer as you suffered, not entertain or enlighten them.

The problem with Genzlinger’s argument, and most similar anti-memoir attacks, is that he is not arguing against the writing of memoir, he is arguing against badly-written memoirs.  In his essay, he ‘reviews’ three recent memoirs that he finds particularly egregious, to prove his point.

Well, exactly.  If you write badly, shallowly, without discovery into your life because you have had “cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight … taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child” then you will have written badly, and the book will be a bad book.  That doesn’t indict an entire genre.

Oh well.  New York has been in a cold snap lately.  All this recent hot air might serve a purpose.




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