Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Too Much Sharing?

Last month, New York Times editor Neil Genzlinger reviewed four current memoirs in a column entitled “The Problem With Memoirs.” In it, he bemoans the mediocrity of most of today’s entries in this “absurdly bloated genre,” and uses the four (three panned, one praised) to illustrate his “guidelines for would-be memoirists.” Read the column, whether you enjoy memoirs or despise them. It is amusing and insightful, although I do not necessarily agree with its prescriptions.

Genzlinger’s first admonition is “That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.” Agreed. But a memoir is a voice as well as a story, and some voices can make the most mundane story resonate. Read Bill Bryson’s The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. A delightful reminiscence about growing up in the 50’s in Des Moines, it is also a vivid portrayal of the decade’s popular culture and is fall-on-the-floor-laughing funny to boot.

Guideline number two: “No one wants to relive your misery.” No, we don’t. But the sense of identification we feel when a skilled writer puts into words the emotions and experiences that make us human is one reason many of us read. Read The Year of Magical Thinking, by novelist Joan Didion, about the loss of her husband, or Lit, by poet Mary Karr, about her alcoholism and recovery. Misery, yes, but also powerful, moving, and illuminating.

Gentzlinger decries imitation in his third caveat: “If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.” This one seems hard to disagree with on its face, but I wonder what he means by “credentials.” He scorns Allen Shawn’s Twin, which describes the writer’s experience of having an institutionalized autistic sister. The book has received rave reviews, including in the pages of Gentzlinger’s own Times.

Finally, Gentzlinger praises a fourth memoir. “If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it,” which is what author Johanna Adjordan does in An Exclusive Love, about her grandparents’ suicide pact. But is that memoir? Or is it biography?

Love them or hate them, memoirs are popular here at RPL, and new ones are arriving every week.

(And what memoir am I reading? My current reading includes two at the moment: Hitch 22, the witty and provocative tell-all by leftist intellectual and atheist Christopher Hitchens; and Poser: My Life in Twenty Three Yoga Poses, by Claire Dederer, a fluffy but fun description of how yoga changed her life.)

No comments: