“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?
- Top 10 Things a Memoir Needs (nonzerologic.wordpress.com)
- Must-Read Memoirs (susiemeserve.com)
- Strand of Pearls, Memoir on Surviving Child Abuse and Adult Addiction, May Well Serve As a Solution to a Recent Article in the NY Times (prweb.com)