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Memoir: The ‘Barbie’ genre

14 November, 2009

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.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Diane permalink
    28 February, 2010 8:52 am

    I haven’t read any of Mary Karr’s books but I’d like to after reading Cheever’s review. The line that got me was: “Yet, remembered details have to be chosen to make scenes as revealing as if they had been imagined. When she can’t remember, Karr, now in her 50s, makes forgetting part of her story.” Memory is as fictionalized as imagination. Do you agree?

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    • 28 February, 2010 2:25 pm

      Interesting question! Cheever talks about memoirs having to have ‘the authority of the real’. And to do this, memoirists borrow the fiction writer’s ‘authority’, shaping their real-life story to be similar to fiction, with scenes, dialogue, a narrative arc, a climax. More memoirists are writing prefaces to identify where fiction has deliberately been used, e.g., stating that their dialogues are made up, but that the gist of the conversation IS true–as they remember it.

      What’s the result? The artistically ‘shaped’ memoir is sometimes a more satisfying read than the unshaped, ‘let it all hang out’ memoir, where the assumption is that readers want to know everything. But when memoirists become too selective about what to include, readers may feel cheated. They are getting only a facade or surface account rather than an insight into the sometimes contradictory life of a real person who interests them.

      Making forgetting part of the memoir story is, I suppose, a way to keep reminding readers that they are reading a memoir, not a smooth fictional story. But if the forgetting is brought to the fore too many times–I think, my memory of that is . . . , I may be wrong but it seemed. . .–the memoirist runs the risk of wrecking the imaginative thrust that readers expect. After all, we all shape our own stories all the time, for example when we meet new people and talk about ourselves and our lives. We edit some things out, keep some things in, shade and colour some anecdotes to fit our view of ourselves. So in that sense, we are all fictionalising ourselves.

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  2. 23 November, 2009 10:45 am

    One of my friends told me about the Susan Cheever/Barbie piece. I googled both names and found this insightful post. Thanks for your own thoughts on the genre. I plan to give you a pingback in my own next post. I’d love to have you visit at http://100memoirs.com

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    • 25 November, 2009 5:39 pm

      Thanks, and will get to your post soon to read more about memoir writing, one of the hottest genres now.

      Like

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