Precisely because the memoir is potentially so rich, true lovers of the genre have been dismayed in recent years by the rise of the memoir industry—let's call it Memoir Inc.—and its braying flacks, the supreme example being James Atlas, who presided over a special issue of The New York Times Magazine (May 12, 1996) titled "True Confessions: The Age of the Literary Memoir."
In his own lead-off contribution ("The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now: Confessing for Voyeurs"), Atlas managed to include all four of the founding distortions endlessly recycled by Memoir Inc. The first is that we are witnessing an extraordinary profusion of memoir-writing. "Consider the evidence," Atlas writes: "nearly two dozen memoirs are being published this spring, with more to come, supplementing the 200 titles—by one book review editor's estimate—published last year." And this is evidence of what?
Americans, famous and obscure, have been writing memoirs, confessions, full-scale autobiographies, and personal narratives of all sorts for a very long time now—long before the "trend" trumpeted by Atlas. Indian captives, former slaves, spiritualists, baseball players from the dead-ball era, police detectives, and countless people who have found Jesus or been found by him: they have all told their stories.
Yes, there have been some best-selling memoirs of late—The Liar's Club, Angela's Ashes, and so on. And yes there are some useful generalizations to be made about contemporary memoirs in comparison and contrast to those of earlier eras. Both the differences and the continuities would be well worth pondering. But don't bore the acolytes of Memoir Inc. with mundane facts, with history. History is boring! Like so many others on the literary scene these days, they speak the language of celebrity journalism (as in The New Yorker's promotion of "Debut Fiction," discussed in a recent column). Right now memoir is hot, hot, hot—but Atlas wonders: "Can it last? Will memoir prove as evanescent as other cultural phenomena?" You know: the Hula Hoop, disco, memoir. …
The second distortion is the overemphasis on "the license to tell all" as the defining characteristic of the contemporary memoir, crudely underlined with Atlas's subtitle, "Confessing for Voyeurs." Certainly that is the selling point of many widely read contemporary memoirs—one of the most talked-about books coming this fall is Knopf's The Camera My Mother Gave Me, a vagina-centered memoir by Susanna Kaysen, author of Girl, Interrupted—but it simply doesn't apply to many others, nor is it a reliable criterion to separate the good from the bad, the memorable from the cliched. Some powerful memoirs are ruthlessly revealing; many are merely trashy, shaming writer and reader both. Some of the most delightful memoirs are also among the most discreet, but many confuse discretion with blandness.
Third is a naïve faith that memoirs give us "the facts." Atlas quotes Mary Karr, author of The Liar's Club and its sequel, Cherry, "People want a window on how to behave," and then—perhaps considering that one would be ill-advised to read Karr to get "a window on how to behave"—he adds this gloss: "They want to read about someone's life and say, This is how it was. This really happened." He says of The Liar's Club that "Karr conjures the simmering heat and bottled rage of life in a small Texas oil town with an intensity that gains power from its verisimilitude—from the fact that it's fact."
But "verisimilitude"—much beloved by novelists and other professional liars—is defined as "the appearance or semblance of truth." Binjamin Wilkomirski's prizewinning Holocaust memoir, Fragments, was loaded with verisimilitude, but it turned out to consist of fabricated memories. Another Holocaust memoir, Susan Demidenko's The Hand That Signed the Paper, recounting Ukrainian atrocities against Jews, possessed sufficient verisimilitude to win Australia's highest literary honor, the Miles Franklin Award, in 1995. But Susan Demidenko was subsequently revealed to be Helen Darville, "raised in the eastern Australian city of Brisbane, where she is remembered by neighbors and former schoolmates as a lonely girl with an exceptionally vivid imagination" (The New York Times, September 26, 1995). And so on.
Even when there is no global intent to deceive, memoir-writing is far from being a straightforward account of "the facts." One doesn't need to go over to the postmodern extreme, according to which memoir is just another species of fiction, to marvel at the credulous insistence that memoir "brings the news."
And that brings us to the fourth and final pillar of Memoir Inc: the absurd notion that in order for memoir to get its due, fiction must be denigrated. How this ever got started I don't know, but by now it is deeply rooted in "the literature." Atlas again provides the locus classicus. If Proust were living today, Atlas says, he wouldn't need the "disguise" of fiction; his masterwork would be a memoir: "The novelist writes disguised autobiography; the memoirist cuts to the chase." (This from the biographer of novelist Saul Bellow!) Brent Staples, that trusty voice of the zeitgeist, picked up the theme in a column, "Hating It Because It's True: The Backlash Against the Memoir" (The New York Times, April 27, 1997), where he sagely observes that "writers who once would have couched personal histories as fiction have stopped dissembling." Such people don't understand fiction or memoir.
Fortunately there are plenty of memoirs at hand to be read for their own sake, without the pretexts supplied by Memoir Inc. Next week we'll take up four exemplary memoirs: Phyllis Tickle's The Shaping of a Life: A Spiritual Landscape (Doubleday), Richard Lischer's Open Secrets: A Spiritual Journey Through a Country Church (Doubleday), Scott Sawyer's Earthly Fathers (Zondervan), and Su Xiaokang's A Memoir of Misfortune (Knopf).
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Looking for the Soul of CBA | Nearly anything that can be said about Christian publishing is true to some extent, thanks to the industry's ever-enlarging territory. (July 23, 2001)
Give Me Your Muslims, Your Hindus, Your Eastern Orthodox, Yearning to Breathe Free | Immigration's long-ignored effect on American religion is garnering much attention from scholars (July 9, 2001)
.Shrekked | Why are readers responding passionately about a simple film review? (July 2, 2001)
Debutante Fiction | The New Yorker should have paid less attention to the novelty of its writers and more attention to their writing. (June 18, 2001)
Saint Teddy? | Yes, Roosevelt paid the usual presidential respects to Christianity, but didn't show much explicit personal devotion to it. (June 11, 2001)
History Bully | Christian scholars speak not-so-softly over a big sticking point: Theodore Roosevelt's faith. (june 4, 2001)
'Taken Up in Glory' | The Ascension has been forgotten in many Protestant churches, jettisoning an essential part of the Christian story. (May 21, 2001)
Who Won? Who Cares? | Skip the latest ballot reviews and read Italo Calvino's brilliant election novella "The Watcher." (May 14, 2001)
Infamy Indeed | John Gregory Dunne suggests imperialistic Americans got what they deserved at Pearl Harbor. (May 7, 2001)
Rantings of a Not-So-Primly Dressed Person With Too Much Time | The Chronicle of Higher Education infuses some not-so-subtle bigotry into its fetal-tissue research coverage. (Apr. 30, 2001)
Big Numbers, Big Problems | Christianity is in the midst of a massive global shift. But how much of a difference is it making in its new homelands? (Apr. 16, 2001)
DiIulio Keeps Explaining, But Is Anyone Listening? | At a media luncheon in Washington about Bush's faith-based initiatives, answered questions get asked one more time. (Apr. 9, 2001)