Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Meaning of the Memoir

What does a good memoir look like? Two writers weigh in on the place of personal writing in the age of the blog.

In the most recent New York Times Sunday Book Review, Neil Genzlinger offers some advice to would-be memoirists: namely, don’t do it. It used to be, he argues, that you had to “earn the right to draft a memoir,” either by “accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” Now though, anyone who’s anyone—and a lot of people who aren’t—are penning their personal histories, “writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional.”

Drawn from his recent (and generally dissatisfied) readings of four new additions to the “absurdly bloated genre,” Genzlinger’s assembled a list of guidelines for aspiring autobiographers. Heather Havrilesky’s Disaster Preparedness inspires the advice that just because “you had parents and a childhood does not itself qualify you to write a memoir.” “No one wants to relive your misery,” is the lesson from Sean Manning’s The Things That Need Doing. The take-away from Allen Shawn’s recent autism memoir is that “if you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.”

The only “Do” on Genzlinger’s advisory list is gleaned from Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love: “consider making yourself the least important character,” as Adorjan did in this “spare, beautiful exploration” of her grandparents’ joint suicide. The book captures Adorjan’s own discovery process, so that its subjects “come slowly into focus for the author and reader simultaneously.” In Genzlinger’s estimation, that’s the key to a successful memoir. “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir,” he suggests, “then don’t publish it.”

The most current issue of Guernica also takes on the ubiquitous genre, albeit with a gentler hand. Guest editor Deb Olin Unferth—whose own memoir came out this week—celebrates the form, calling for “no more insults hurled at the memoir.” Which isn’t to say she’s in favor of everyone who, as Genzlinger writes, “has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child.” Instead, she writes in praise of the “artistic energy surrounding the form.” The genre might be ripe for poorly-executed over-sharing, as Genzlinger complains, but it’s also, Unferth argues, prime for innovation and experimentation.

Classic “everything that’s every happened to me, retold in order” autobiographies, she explains, gave way to the tighter, more curated arcs of late-20th century writers. These in turn (Unferth cites Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club as examples of the subgenre) carved out space for what she calls “odd duck” memoirs--works that often play with the very notion of "truth" vs. "fiction." As evidence of the form's potential, Unferth offers up a selection of “innovative memoirs” by writers who put their own distinctive stamp on the genre. (Three of them are already up on the site, and three more will go live mid-month.)

So we turn to you: where does—and where should—the memoir fit into the current literary landscape? What do you look for when you dive into a personal narrative? And if you’ve penned your own memoirs (or ghosted someone else's), how did you go about turning life into art?

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