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Monday, August 18, 2003  

Writing: The memoir and me

Fellow writer and blogger Rick Heller would like to know what I think about the memoir as literature. I believe he means the contemporary memoir, not the traditional autobiographies of famous people. The impetus for Rick's interest is a current altercation about memoirs and accuracy in the writing world.

Memoirs have become a popular genre, and I'm working on one myself. I'm currently taking a class on memoirs at the Blue Hills Writing Institute.

Salon has covered a controversy over the accuracy of memoir writing, and the writer at issue, Vivian Gornick, makes her response.

To state the case briefly: memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.

If I were going to give a short answer to the question 'What is your opinion of the memoir?' I would say a yellow caution light starts blinking in my mind when I hear or read the word 'memoir.' I am ambivalent about the contemporary memoir. But, let's examine the topic more thoroughly.

Part of what bothers me about them is they are so self-referential. Often, memoirists write as if they are the only persons with their experiences who exist. Furthermore, they are often writing to validate their experiences, not to make them comprehendible to other people. Confessional and memoir have come to mean the same thing.

My discomfiture with some memoirists began about the time the recovered memory movement was unmasked as the fraud I believe it was. Some writers of memoirs fairly well-known in the literary world had written books that relied on the movement or the reasoning behind it. That reasoning: Children experience traumatic events, often sexual abuse, and forget them until a helpful therapist revives the memories. Recovered memory is now believed to be an unproven, if not false, theory.

The typical recovered memory memoir is similar to the one described sympathetically here.

My Father's House: A Memoir of Incest and of Healing by Sylvia Fraser . . . published by Harper & Row, copyright 1987. She was a beautiful blonde child, a star student, a quintessential 1950's teenager, a model wife, an award-winning journalist. As a girl, she loved Saturday matinees, giggled at pajama parties, ran for student council president, led the cheerleading squad, went steady with the right boy and married him, her proud father at her side. But from the age of seven, Sylvia Fraser shared her body with a "twin," another self created to do the things she was too frightened, ashamed, repelled to do -- the things her father made her do. As an adult, Sylvia Fraser had no recollection of a sexual relationship with her father; for forty years the existence of her other self and the secret life she led had been unknown to her. With tremendous candor and eloquence, Fraser breaks through her amnesia to discover and embrace the tortured self she left behind. A horror story, a mystery and a coming-of-age story told with lyric beauty and intensity.

But, I don't believe all or most memoirists mainly make their experiences up. I suspect most of the books are blends of things that happened and things that didn't, as Gornick admits her book, Fierce Attachments, is. She asks us to take the memoir on faith. I do -- to an extent. However, I believe it may be too easy for memoirs to become more fiction than fact.

There are other things about the memoir that give me pause. Beginning with Kathryn Harrison's memoir, The Kiss in 1988, the genre became the choice of people who want to exploit their experiences for maximum mileage. Harrison claims to have had an affair with her father as an adult. The breaking of a taboo present in all known cultures is a sizzling subject. The book became an 'event' long before it was published.

The 1990s seems to be the decade of revelation. What used to be private is becoming increasingly public. All is aired on talk shows whose guests are no longer celebrities hawking their latest film, book, or album, but ordinary citizens selling their personal traumas. Mothers Who Sleep with Their Daughters' Boyfriends; Men Who Wear Their Girlfriends' Clothes; People Whose Families Have Been Murdered Before Their Eyes--no subject is too salacious or too shameful for public consumption.

It seems to be that Harrison and her publisher sought to make the book a success by positioning it as spectacle, intended to appeal to both readers of literary fiction and those looking for cheap thrills. In doing so, they placed the goal of selling lots of books above that of selling good books. The consensus among writers is that The Kiss is far from Harrison's best work. Furthermore, she had already mined the material to better literary effect in an earlier novel.

Jennifer Howard gets to the heart of the matter, writing in Salon.

For anybody lucky enough to have missed all the prepublication hoopla about The Kiss -- an excerpt snapped up by The New Yorker, a hand-holding profile in Mirabella, front-page coverage in the New York Observer, a raised-eyebrow report in Vanity Fair and the list goes on -- The Kiss is novelist Kathryn Harrison's memoir of the four-year affair she had, beginning at the tender but consenting age of 20, with her father. But for all the ink spilled, all the heat this book has generated before ever seeing the inside of a bookstore, there's not much here to raise anyone's temperature. Those who pick up The Kiss looking for sweaty-palmed titillation be warned: You'll find more sizzle at a backyard barbecue.

Which would be all right -- it would be shameful, after all, to be caught enjoying a memoir about incest -- if the book had something to make it stand out from the mob of survivors' stories, both fictional and autobiographical, that publishers have inflicted on us lately. But as The Kiss demonstrates, incest alone, terrible as it is, does not a compelling book make.

Harrison and her promoters fell short of their goal. To maximize profits, the movie rights to a novel need to sell and produce a reasonably successful film. That did not occur.

No, I am not jejune enough to completely put down the money motive inherent in writing -- or at least in publishing, which is what professional writers seek for their work. But, such brazen positioning for profit making rubs me the wrong way.

So, in summary, I am ambivalent about memoirs. Much of that ambivalence dates from two watershed events in the contemporary memoir writing -- the recovered memory movement and the publication of Kathryn Robinson's mercenary memoir The Kiss, which resulted in numerous progeny. This position does not mean I would never read or write a memoir. Some writers, including Alice Walker and Henry Louis Gates. Jr.., have traversed the rapids of memoir very successfully.

But, at this time in my personal history as a reader and a writer, I don't consider the memoir a preferred medium.

4:28 PM