Memoir: The ‘Barbie’ genre
Reading the online NY Times Sunday Book Review, I was taken with Susan Cheever’s description of why memoirs are so popular. The quote comes from ‘The Morning After’, Cheever’s review of Mary Karr’s memoir, Lit: A Memoir.
Memoir is the Barbie of literary genres. It exaggerates the assets and invites the reader into an intimate alternative world, sometimes complete with a dream house. We hungrily buy and read memoir even as we express contempt for it. Memoirs are confessional and subversive; memoirs drop names. Memoirs print whispered secrets on their covers in 24-point type.
In my last post, about Elizabeth Gilbert’s memoir, Eat Pray Love, I wrote that I was not a big fan of memoirs. I like scholarly biographies, which often provide a full and rounded sense of the person. I’m less inclined to read memoirs because, as author Clive James notes in his own memoir’s title, they are so ‘unreliable’. Perhaps because I myself am a private person, I am not that interested in delving into strangers’ lives on the page. Having said that, I don’t mind people revealing all sorts of things about themselves when they write or talk to me directly.
I enjoy personal nonfiction, including memoir, when it is packaged in the short form of an essay. But dipping into book-length account of someone’s view of their life is usually too much. Why?
- So often, memoirists write about themselves with too much self-indulgence and too little insight.
- Just as often, the memoir is a one-trick pony, written on a single theme. An example is the current trend in ‘misery memoirs’, which I commented on in an earlier post.
I suspect that some of these memoirs are penned much too soon, while the bad experience is still raw. Wordsworth defined poetry as the ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’—similar to what people do when writing these memoirs. But he added an important criterion, that the emotions are to be ‘recollected in tranquility’.
Emotional distance is what enables memoirists to provide perspective as they tell their life story. Some authors, even if they write years later about a subject, may still not be able to achieve emotional distance. Their memoir may cast readers as voyeurs, giving them nothing more than the raw experience to wallow in. When memoirists do achieve this perspective, they are able to interpret their experiences in ways that can help their readers understand and perhaps empathise with the life they are reading about.