In The New York Review of Books, columnist Lorrie Moore recently explored the role of the memoir in today’s publishing world, asking some old, potent questions :

Are you connected to a fascinating and underexplored chapter in history in any manner whatever? … Do you have a social cause you would like to advocate strenuously? … If not, wherefore the memoir?

The piece produced some strong reactions among our staff, who agreed to share some of their thoughts.

Leslie (Phoebe nonfiction editor)

Above all, I think it’s a rather disappointing take. I think there’s an impulse among writers (and everyone) to try to take something popular down a notch or two. And I think memoir as a genre is still really relevant. And, let’s face it — memoirs sell. They sell well. And I guess what was so disappointing about Moore’s op-ed was that it seemed like it was more of this failure to recognize creative nonfiction, generally, as a ‘literary’ genre. She even writes about Joan Didion as a novelist who has written a good memoir — a strange way of describing Didion, as I (and most others) would identify her as a nonfiction writer who has written fiction. That’s a way, to my mind, of getting a jab in, of portraying nonfiction as “less than.”

Her op-ed seemed more of a criticism of memoir for what it is not. It’s a genre, like the novel or the short story. It has its limitations, but it also has strengths. It’s just frustrating to see, even in her reviews of the three memoirs, that even though she seemed to really like them, she felt the need to show her ‘literary’ muscles by saying, basically, “but this would have been even better as a novel.” OK, but it’s not a novel. There are things a memoir can do that a novel can’t. Though both, I think, have the ultimate goal of illuminating something about the human experience, the memoir can (often) do that in a more direct way. Sure, there are some memoirs that might have been better as autobiographical novels. At the same time, there may be autobiographical novels out there that would have been better as memoir. Why do we need to hold these things against one another as points of comparison? Why can’t they stand on their own, on their own merits?

There is, I think, a tendency among literary writers to see creative nonfiction as less than literary — even among nonfiction writers. Robert Atwan, who edits the Best American Essay series, said in an AWP panel that he wished writers would stop writing memoir “because there are just so many bad ones.” Thank goodness for Kyoko Mori (novelist, memoirist, and GMU professor), who jumped in with the response that there are plenty of bad novels and bad poetry, but no one suggests that writers stop writing these things.

Ben (friend of the magazine and first-time contributor this issue)

From NYTimes.com

Disappointing is the right word.  Plus – the whole “oh my God there are so many bad memoirs” thing just seems so outdated.  That argument would have been wrong, but at least more interesting when nonfiction started becoming more popular and incorporated into MFA programs, etc.  Frankly, it just sounds bitter to me.  My guess is that the memoir, as we tend to think of it at least, is actually on its way out anyway.  The fact that we can get degrees in it is usually the first sign of its cultural demise.  In 15 years there will be bitter memoirists (us) complaining about how no one reads them anymore.

There are a lot of bad memoirs.  But as writers of literary nonfiction we might as well look to fiction and say – look how much Dan Brown-esque fiction is being written.  The Novel is clearly DEAD! (I guess Tom Wolfe did say that).  I tend to find all this intra-literature fighting to be not just counter-productive but downright boring (even the crack I just made about Dan Brown…I’ve got nothing against Dan Brown, really.  I’d rather people read Dan Brown than not read books at all.)

The writers I tend to admire most write what they want to write, to the best of their ability, and they don’t really give a damn what category it falls under.  Categories are for publishers, and as I mentioned to a friend the other day, publishers (esp. big publishers) are becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Josh (Phoebe nonfiction and web editor)

I’m a tad more sympathetic to Ms. Moore’s arguments. After all, there really are too many poorly written, navel-gazing memoirs out there. And I’ve read too many “creative” essays that mine personal experience for a narrative that simply isn’t that engaging. Plus, Ms. Moore does acknowledge that the work she highlights has some merit–calling them candid, questing, and tear-jerking.

Then again, even as she does that, she follows up any accolades with caveats (for the preceding sentence: if necessarily imperfect books). As Leslie and Ben point out, her need for such disclaimers is rather puzzling. As previously discussed, no genre is exempt from their duds (I’m a bit less charitable to Dan Brown’s success than Ben is, for example!) Overall, it seems clear that we hold memoirs to a different standard.

I’m not convinced that’s a bad thing.

It is long acknowledged that the inherent egotism of the artist in creating something is inherent to the process–but the risks are somehow even more pronounced, aren’t they, in overtly writing about oneself?

This makes the memoir pieces that work all the more impressive.

In the end, regardless of the validity of Ms. Moore’s claims, one thing is clear–the proverbial gauntlet continues to be thrown.

Which is one of the reasons we’re so proud of our first year of highlighting creative nonfiction on PhoebeJournal.com. This fall we’re also very excited to welcome two outstanding pieces by R. B. Moreno and Jessica McCaughey, winners of our first ever nonfiction contest, to our print issue.

For our part, we’ll continue to do what we can to take up the gauntlet.

Thoughts of your own? Post them below.

Thoughts About Memoirs
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One thought on “Thoughts About Memoirs

  • June 2, 2011 at 11:43 am
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    Thanks, Leslie, Ben, and Josh, for weighing in on this debate. (And I’m delighted to be joining the Phoebe contributors club!) Here are my thoughts on the same: “In an Age of Great Nonfiction Writing, Too Much Nonfiction Writing?” http://bit.ly/eLnhJf

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