Is Memoir Still a Dirty Word & The Scorn Against Memoir, Again
Is Memoir Still a Dirty Word? This needs to be an on-going conversation, so my post here is just a quick pebble thrown into the pond, hoping to stimulate some discussion around this issue. The scorn against memoir that some writers and critics seem to feel, in spite of the growing—(perhaps too much?)—trend for memoir publication, puzzles me; but it also reminds me of a similar scorn, that vis-à-vis the medium of photography when it emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century as a new artistic form. Indeed, the whole debate that raged at the time (and, significantly, has not quite died today) was on whether photography could be called an art form at all, given its heavily technological basis and its infinitely reproducible output. Leaving aside the fact that the definition itself of "technology" is in the eye of the beholder—(by the standards of its own time context, the iron age was high technology)—and the whiff of elitist preciousness intrinsic to the idea that photography should be of lesser value because it can be reproduced, what is interesting is that the debate about photography back then, as the one on memoir today, hinged on similar fears held by the artistic élites of the time. A fear to become displaced from their creative ivory tower by the new medium/genre; and a fear of not being easily able to categorize the rather "hybrid" nature of the new medium/genre (and, by default, of "diluting" the classification status of their practiced medium). Back then, it was the painters who vilified photography (while at the same time they started using it widely as a tool, recognizing its ease when compared with painting on location or with live models); today, it is the fiction writers who vilify memoir, regarding it as a "lesser" and at the same time "tainted" enterprise. Lesser, because in their mind it requires no feat of imagination to write something factual; tainted, because they cannot accept that even the "truth" (yet another moniker requiring socio-cultural contextualization) could be somewhat constructed and fictionalized. (On this somewhat endless debate, one wonderful text that collects a wide range of opinions by some of the strongest voices in the field of non-fiction writing is "Truth in Non-Fiction ", edited by David Lazar). I could go on but I will stop here, hoping to stimulate discussion around these issues. I am here reproducing parts of a text (the underlining is mine) by Brent Staples found on fiction and non-fiction writer Kathryn Harrison's website. He writes about Harrison's controversial memoir "The Kiss" (in which she recounted her incestuous love affair with her father), but only by default; most of the piece is about the scorn against memoir. Editorial Notebook; Hating It Because It Is True By BRENT STAPLES "Autobiography was once dominated by famous people who summed up their lives near the end... Younger novelists have joined the memoir trend. But hard-core traditionalists have denounced it as a blight on literature and a turn toward self-indulgence and exhibitionism. This is curious indeed, given that novels and memoirs are often so closely related as to be interchangeable. First novels in particular are often no more than thinly veiled personal histories. In addition, the best memoirs use fictional techniques -- and could easily pass for novels if the writers wanted to call them that... ... the historical novelist Thomas Mallon said that novels were inherently about "larger truths," while memoirs were about personal ones. But what's obvious is that the devilish little girl in "The Liars' Club" is every little girl. That she bears the author's name makes her no less compelling or universal... It has become popular to dismiss memoir as a way of peddling misery to a voyeuristic public. But what's at play here is a prejudice that regards fiction as more literary than nonfiction narrative writing... given the stylistic kinship that now links novels and memoirs, that prejudice is no longer supportable." The Scorn About Memoir, Again What is it about memoir that prompts many intelligent and learned people (who should know better) to poo-poo it? Yes, it's true that memoir has become somewhat of a literary trend lately and often for the wrong reasons (the proliferation of not-really-indispensable remembrances by the rich and famous is my pet-peeve example); but as a genre, memoir has a legitimate place in the pantheon of literature and should not be treated with the scorn that it is subjected to by many writers and readers alike. I saw just one more example of this when I attended a public interview with Leslie Marmon-Silko , the wonderful Native American author. She has recently published a new book, The Turquoise Ledge, whose subtitle is "a memoir". It is, as her interviewer Molly Gloss pointed out, a memoir in the style of Annie Dillard's meditative essays on nature and the environment: Marmon-Silko lives on the edge of the Sonora desert in Arizona and, when not writing, loves to take long walk; the book is a collection of the thoughts inspired by and the incidents witnessed during, these walks—interspersed with personal recollections. Molly Gloss is an author herself, of historical novels set in the American West and fantasy books; during the interview, she displayed a considerable scorn against memoir, implying that perhaps the new Marmon-Silko book should not have been labeled such (too good, or too serious to be a memoir?) At one point she said that when one thinks of memoir, usually this conjures images of famous people writing about their achievements, or people with "dysfunctional f". The latter was uttered with a considerable smirk on Gloss' face—the implication being that only self-indulgent, self-centered people write memoir (and especially so when it is about "dysfunctional families"): the rest, the enlightened and "serious" writers, concentrate on either the more conventional end of non-fiction (ie. the politically-worthy, such as exposé journalism, or socially relevant essays); or, better still, they just write fiction. Now, I am the greatest lover of fiction around; and I must confess that I read a great deal more fiction than I do non-fiction; and yet, apart from the occasional short story and poem, the thought of writing anything other than non-fiction, and then again other than personal non-fiction stories, has never occurred to me. Why? Because, as an old and old-fashioned feminist, I believe in that little dictum, "the personal is political"; and I believe that, by writing memoir, we can both satisfy our "reality hunger" (with apologies to David Shields —someone who certainly doesn't have a narrow idea of what non-fiction is) and communicate something that will be socially and culturally relevant and of interest to readers other than our family or friends. In fact, let's explode once and for all the myth that the only people who will be interested in reading our memoir are our next of kin or our closest friends: oftentimes, these are in fact the people who end up being our worst critics and least enthusiastic readers, because of the personal investment they too have in our life story—and the fact that their perception of the "facts", the "truth" may not exactly coincide with ours. Many memoir writers talk about this problem—see for instance Louise DeSalvo and Mark Doty. As a rebuttal to all those who scorn memoir: all good writers, even when they are writing about themselves, are capable of separating their real life from their real life as it exists on the page, where it ceases to belong to them alone and becomes an artistic product, becomes public domain. I had just one of those "dysfunctional families", but the reason I came to believe I ought to write about my mother's madness and terrible life was not therapy; I have never confused art with therapy: when I want therapy I go to the therapist, when I want to write, I go to my desk. It was instead because I realized that there was a story there, potentially interesting to other women (and men, too); a story about madness as it related to gender, as it related to a specific culture. And that I could tell that story in a voice that was both poetic and critical. Yes, it is possible to write memoir that is utterly solipsistic and narcissistic, and indeed there are many books like that out there; but there are also many crappy works of fiction, so would this latter fact be enough to disqualify the entire genre of fiction? Should we look at books as entities within a labeled box, as part of a genre—or should we look at books as we ought to look at human beings: each one unique, each one the product of a particular culture, historical moment, the product of a creative mind inflamed with a timeless yearning: the desire to tell a story?

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