February 2, 2011

Another outbreak of the memoir debate


Certain literary debates are like herpes. They flare up periodically and receives lots of attention, cause lots of consternation, and then go away… for awhile. “The Death of the Novel” debate is one of the classic literary STDs. The “Are Memoirs Trash?” debate is another.

The most recent flare-up of memoir distress comes courtesy of Neil Genzlinger whose New York Times article “The Problem With Memoirs” bemoans “the age of oversharing” and lambastes the “sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.” He follows this up with four memoir maxims (using four new memoirs as illustrative scapegoats):

1. That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.

2. No one wants to relive your misery.

3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.

4. If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.

Good advice, as far as it goes, but if this feels familiar, it is. This sort of complaint goes as far back (and surely further) as when Edmund Burke bewailed “the new sort of glory” Jean-Jacques Rousseau‘s Confessions received ”from bringing hardily to light… obscure and vulgar vices.” I’m stealing this example from Daniel Mendelsohn‘s illuminating New Yorker article about memoirs which tracks the evolution (or devolution as some would have it) of the genre from the religious Confessions of St. Augustine to the secular confessions of Rousseau, Twain, Levi… Andre Agassi, Chelsea Handler, Snooki, etc. While deeply critical of modern memoir (Mendelsohn also employs water-metaphors to describe the phenomenon, referring to the “flood” and “tsunami” of modern memoirs) and its exhibitionism, commercialism, and desire for cheap redemption, he also admits that “sometimes memoir may be the only way to cover a subject effectively.” Ultimately, his article provides a much more complex appraisal than Genzlinger’s harangue.

Though the timing must be a coincidence, it’s easy to imagine that Deb Olin Unferth, (author of the new memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War) is responding directly to Genzlinger in her “Memoir Manifesto” in the February issue of Guernica when she writes “Let’s have no more insults hurled at the memoir, shall we?” She then goes to talk about the many diverse, delightful, formally and artistically challenging manifestations that memoir has taken throughout recent history, from Gertrude Stein through Tobias Wolff up to Dave Eggers and the young writers she has included (as guest editor) in Guernica who “each explore memoir in a decidedly contemporary manner, while at the same time showing an understanding of the past tradition.”

It’s tempting to view Unferth and Genzlinger as pitted in some fierce and diametric aesthetic battle, but I suspect that’s not the case. Indeed, I see them as being fundamentally on the same team: both want well-written, intellectually engaging, emotionally complex, literarily worthwhile pieces of writing. Genzlinger is taking a corrective approach, trying to blast out the sins of the genre. Unferth employs a curatorial tactic: she ignores the troughs of narcissism and hackwork that so infuriate Genzlinger to shine a spotlight on the writing she finds fine and rare and good. Though I sympathize deeply with the corrective desire (“Please. Stop. Writing. So. Much. Crap.”), it can lead to some fallacious and miserable thinking.

Among Genzlinger’s missteps: 1. He slips into the dreaded “good old days” mentality. “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir” he writes, as if once writers obeyed honorable codes of behavior and no one was ever motivated by greed, self-satisfaction, and solipsism to pick up a pen. 2. He mistakes the problems in memoirs as the problem with memoirs (“the fallacy of composition”). In other words, he points to the distasteful qualities of many memoirs as a way to suggest something awry with the genre as a whole and perhaps modern culture in general. This same loose logic could be used for any number of essays titled “The Problem With Novels,” “The Problem With Music,” “The Problem With Humans,” and so on. Once you realize that things of value are rare and that most art is worthless then the hopelessness of his position becomes clear. There’s no point in lecturing stones for being more abundant than diamonds. Even those who have lived “interesting” lives by his standards are highly unlikely to write good memoirs. Even those who heed his maxims are likely to embarrass themselves in myriad other ways. Genzlinger worries that good memoirs are “lost in the sea” of bad ones, but it is art’s fate to be lost in the sea. Alas, the exceptional is often the exception.