Bookish Matters

The person, be it gentleman or lady, who has not pleasure in a good novel, must be intolerably stupid.

—Jane Austen, Northanger Abbey

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Memoir as Art

Not to long ago I was talking to The Ex-Boyfriend, and told him I was excited because I was getting ideas for how to turn my assorted personal essays into a memoir. "No one would want to read a memoir by someone as young as you, unless you were a child soldier in Africa," he said.

My ex-boyfriend's unencouraging manner aside, within memoir culture (and I find increasingly it is a sort of sub-culture, not just a group of people) it's not what you say but how you say it. Style over content. It's not the story, but your abilities as a story-teller. James Frey's crime is not that he lied about his book being a memoir, his crime is being a bad writer. Some among the nonfiction community can even be derisive if the memoirist has a compelling story. "You were sexually abused? You were anorexic? You've overcome the odds? Come on!"

Here's Ander Monson's somewhat-cynical take on the memoir:

Asserting the primacy of I suggests that we should care about it because it is an I, because it has incurred slights at the hands of others, of the world. And we should care. Sure, I agree with that: everyone is special, deserving of attention and examination. And inhabiting their experience allows us to share it, know it. (This is called collective knowing.) But I still don't want to read what most people have to say about themselves if it's just to tell their story. I want it to be art, meaning that I want it transformed, juxtaposed, collaged--worked on like metal sculpture, each sentence hammered, gleaming, honed. For me, the sentence is where it's at--the way the story's told--not simply the story behind the language. The action of telling is fine: kudos for you and your confession, your therapy, your bravery in releasing your story to the public. But telling is performing, even if it seems effortless. And writing that story and selling it to a publisher make it product, packaged and edited and marketed. With years of reflection on that story and how it can be shaped as prose (and how its shape changes from our shaping it, reflecting on it), given audience and agents and editors, rhetoric and workshop and rewriting for maximum emotional punch--given the endless possibilities of the sentence on the page, I expect to see a little fucking craft.

If poets can turn the ordinary and mundane into art, why can't memoirists?

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