Notes on the journey of motherhood

Taking the ‘me’ out of memoir

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[Image: the most gorgeous Tumbler site, ever]

“Everyone has a story, and everyone is telling it.” William Zinsser

We are living in the age of the memoir. In the past 20 years we have seen an explosion in the number of memoirs written and published. Some have even gone so far as suggest that memoir is the new novel. But at the same time the genre has become immensely popular – even requiring its own category within the bookstore – it has also developed a bad name in literary circles.

Daniel Mendelssohn writes in The New Yorker that “memoir, for much of its modern history, has been the black sheep of the literary family. Like a drunken guest at a wedding, it is constantly mortifying its soberer relatives – spilling family secrets, embarrassing old friends – motivated, it would seem, by an overpowering need to be the centre of attention.”

To understand the emergence of this ‘memoir craze’ in popular literature, you need look no further than talk show television. In the 1990s our screens were dominated by people confessing intimate details of their lives. No remembered event was considered too shameful or ugly to be paraded before the masses; stories of incest, abuse and addiction, once considered too personal and private to tell, were recounted before a studio audience and an eager international television audience. In the daytime TV arena, dysfunction was almost celebrated, and the public developed a taste for ‘real life’, warts and all story telling. It didn’t take long before this trend was seen in the publishing industry, and thus a new literature of confession was born.

Memoirs developed a bad name at the same time they gained mass popularity. Neil Genzlinger of The New York Times is the most recent in a long line of literary critics who laments “the lost art of shutting up”. As Genzlinger tells it, once upon a time, a person had to do something remarkable or overcome a tragedy to ‘earn the right’ to draft a memoir. But in our oversharing culture, any old Joe can sit down and write a memoir, regardless of how unexceptional or commonplace their circumstances are: anyone who has ever had cancer, suffered depression, overcome an eating disorder, lost weight, grown up. Climbed a mountain. Fallen off a mountain. As a result, he argues, memoir has become an “absurdly bloated genre”.

This is latest in a long line of articles bemoaning the popularity of memoir. Although many of the criticisms are valid – there are a lot of memoirs out there, and many bad – this is not to suggest the genre is a lost cause entirely.

If we think of autobiography and non-fictional texts as ‘official histories’, then perhaps we can see memoir as the ‘unofficial’ histories of society and its people; ‘the backstairs of history’. Some parts of history can only survive through its people telling their own stories. Minorities have often found their voices through memoirs – through slave narratives, or through feminist texts. Through memoir, these minorities were able to tell their own stories for the first time in history, with profound effect. With regard to slave narratives, Toni Morrison suggests “they were written to say two things:

1)    This is my historical life – my singular, special example that is personal, but that also represents the race.

2)    I write this text to persuade other people – you, the reader, who is probably not black – that we are human beings, worthy of God’s grace and the immediate abandonment of slavery.”

These narratives sparked fires which set in motion the abolishment of slavery.

But memoirs don’t need to tackle major human rights issues to be interesting. Some memoirs are so profound, that one story can tell us volumes about an entire society. One such story is Angela’s Ashes. Under the old guard, this story would never have been written. Frank McCourt has said “I thought everything you wrote had to be about England … I didn’t want to write about growing up in the slum in Limerick.” Growing up in an Irish Catholic community, any type of introspection other than “Am I good? Am I bad?” was considered a sin. So it took McCourt nearly 50 years before he sat down to write his story. It then went on to be an international best seller and won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize. In light of this account, perhaps we can reframe memoir as how we try to make sense of who we are, who we once were, and the things that shape us.

Paul Kelly describes his memoir How To Make Gravy as a mongrel memoir. I’d go so far to say that memoir itself is a mongrel genre. Like dogs begin to resemble their owners, so too mongrel memoirs look a lot like the society they belong to. A society that is chaotic and loud; a society searching for truth and order and a grand narrative, but often not finding it. A society where the lines of public and private have been permanently blurred. If all of this sharing serves a larger purpose of understanding ourselves, then I believe memoir deserves its place at the literary table, drunken uncle or not.

Do you read memoirs? Do you read them for their stories or their truth?

11 Responses to “Taking the ‘me’ out of memoir”

  1. Kelly Exeter

    I looooove memoirs – they are easily my favourite non-fiction category for the way they give an insight into a person’s mind through their own eyes. I love reading people’s stories as told by them – especially famous people because so much of their story is told to us by the media and really, the media don’t like to let the truth get in the way of a good story.

  2. Lipgloss Mumma (@LipglossMumma)

    I find memoirs captivating, seeing them tell their story through their eyes. Even if they are written to portray the image that they want people to see it still says so much about them within the pages.

    My Dad wrote his memoirs. He may not appear to be the most interesting person, but I learned so much about him and his life, his decisions, his regrets and his proudest moments.

    I often think personal blogging is really just a day by day memoir.

  3. gabrielablandy

    I love memoirs. I think I read them because they are true, but also because I happened to have a bad run of fictional novels that I felt were overwritten. At the same time, I can related to the arguments against – I actually rather enjoyed all those quotes. Mary Karr’s The Liars Club is absolutely stunning and I highly recommend it.

  4. Gill

    No, I don’t often read memoirs. I don’t have a problem with the genre, it remains under my radar somewhat. I lean towards agreeing with the “lost art of shutting up”. Once a society who believed in shoving things under the carpet now we are encouraged to get it all out there. Neither extreme works. Everyone needs a voice but I question the motivation behind some memoirs. Do all stories have a right to be heard?

  5. ameliadraws

    No one forces any one to read: to those who argue that memoir says to much, that blogs are narcissistic i counter: but people read them…. they would not exist without an audience they would just be online diaries. So whatever their motivation they exist in a too and a fro and delivering and receiving.
    Of course i may well be defending my practice as a blogger, a diarist, a tumblying confidant

  6. bodhisattvaintraining

    I love memoir as a genre. What was that old sbs commercial..six million stories in the world and this is just one of them? Everyone has a story to tell, everyone should be heard. (of course I don’t actually have time to read EVERY one!!).


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