Are There Too Many Memoirs? Should Most Life Stories Not Be Told?

If you follow memoir in the news (one of the categories in this blog which could easily be ten times larger if I followed all the relevant stories here), you probably have read Neil Genzlinger’s savage review of three recently published memoirs (along with praise for a fourth one) in the The New York Times Sunday Book Review. Genzlinger sounds a little like gunslinger, and his attitude resembles Gary Cooper’s in High Noon. He stands alone on a dusty street, single-handedly ready to save the world from the effluvia of badly written, unnecessary memoirs.

Genzlinger is staff editor at The New York Times. Like a number of other critics of the genre, he prefers that those of us with uninteresting lives keep our stories to ourselves.

The questions begged by this review include:

  • What makes a life interesting or uninteresting? And who gets to judge?
  • Is the quality of a memoir determined by the drama of its story or the elite status of the writer in some other realm? Or can a person of no extraordinary life write a memoir masterpiece?

I encourage you to read the article and then share your opinion here. Have you ever read a memoir that could more productively been turned into bedding for the horses?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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38 Responses to Are There Too Many Memoirs? Should Most Life Stories Not Be Told?

  1. Johanna says:

    As the author of a memoir, Graffiti On My Soul, I have to say that I personally prefer authentic true stories of private individuals over fiction. Very few celebrity or political memoirs grab my attention, and few of these are written with anything enduring in their value. To me, the mystery of each individual life is a true adventure, a wonderful epiphany. Granted, not every memoir is well written, nor will it touch every soul, but where it scores, it scores big. At the least it is a cheap vacation to another time, another life, another place, a way of tasting and travelling roads different than our own. At the best, it is a cloudburst of fresh understanding and a supreme indulgence for gourmets of life. Let the memoirs roll….

    • shirleyhs says:

      Johanna, I can tell you are not intimidated at all by the idea that only a few deserve to write their memoirs. I love that spirit! Another subject Genzlinger does not address is the motive of the writer and the writer’s audience. If the writer is clear about what he or she wants to say and why, and there are people who need and want to hear that story, then write on!

  2. friesengroup says:

    Genzlinger makes the assumption that memoirs are written to be great literary masterpieces. I appreciate a well-written memoir. But, I would argue that there are other reasons to write using the memoir form. A few of these reasons: to learn more about oneself and ones experience, to share life experience with others, to discover that we are not alone in our experience, to connect, etc.

    Even those of us who live ordinary lives seek meaning and connection. A life is not made only of grand moments and dramatic turns. It is also in the eating of breakfast and taking out the trash, all the while seeking to live each day with a heart wide open. I, for one, am grateful that memoirists have the courage to write of the ordinary and the extraordinary, both elegantly and haltingly.

    What roles should the literary critic play in today’s self-publishing world and blogosphere?
    -Kathleen

    • shirleyhs says:

      Another vote for the more the merrier! Thanks, Kathleen.

      You leave us with a good question, a new one, based, I suppose, on reading Genzlinger. My hunch is that he knows how to stir the pot and was deliberately using his platform to speak about something that has been bugging him for awhile. The indignation is real, but the tone is not venomous. The NYTimes has a reputation for elitism to uphold, and Genzlinger was there to save the day.

      Will he actually slow down sales of any memoirs? Well he slowed down the three he panned, at least for awhile and at least with the Times audience. But as long as the word “memoir” sells better than the word “novel,” editors and publishers will continue the flow. As for self-publishing, that will continue at an ever greater clip every year.And many of those self-published books will likely be memoir.

  3. Susan Ramsey says:

    Haven Kimmel took this on at the Calvin Festival of Faith and Writing four years ago. In broad terms (which don’t do justice to the depth of her contempt for the NYT, though the word “venal” did stick in my memory) she points out that implicit in this point of view is a contempt for all but the most extraordinary lives and held that, on the contrary, she would like each person to have to write a memoir in order to collect Social Security.

    • Shirley says:

      I love this Haven Kimmel quote! I may have heard it myself, since I heard Kimmel at Calvin, but it didn’t stick. Required essay prior to getting a social security check. Brings up a lovely picture of happy civil servants reading life stories to each other in DC. “Listen to this one!” they say. We could solve our unemployment problem this way. Better than the WPA! But a little like those other Roosevelt era projects of documentary photography and public murals.

      Every life is extraordinary. Every person should reflect and learn to forgive self and others–a process memoir facilitates.

      Should every person publish? That’s another question.

      Thanks, Susan, for sharing this apropos quote.

  4. Ginzlinger overlooks a key point: publishers never invest in a project they don’t expect to profit from. People BUY this stuff. Nobody forced him to read them.

    In truth, most memoir probably isn’t going to fascinate the general public, but it’s immensely valuable for personal growth and transformation (aka “healing”). To get the additional validation of having readers support the author, publishing via Lulu, CreateSpace or one of the other no-fee POD services may be the most satisfactory route for most.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Thanks, Sharon, for sharing this thought. I think Genzlinger may actually be trying to reach the gatekeepers–the editors and publishers–who in the old days could afford to be tastemakers. To a large extent, the public bought what they deemed important. Now it seems that what the public buys is the primary yardstick. There is tremendous financial pressure on the industry. That may be hard on art, but it’s certainly hard on the tastemakers.

      Your point about all the other publishing options available today is part of the financial pressure I refer to above. It’s not all good. It’s not all bad. It just is. Everyone seems to be watching to see what happens next.

  5. jzrart says:

    I’m with you all! I thought the article pompous and elitist. I’d rather read memoir over anything else except for poetry. Writing our stories is a healing process for ourselves and most often the others in those stories. Not all need to be published but Genzlinger’s truly savage review, could stop someone from doing some very necessary work.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi Joan, welcome back! Have you read all the comments after the article? I wonder if any of them were from disappointed aspiring memoir writers? My guess is that if you have the fortitude to write a book, you will have the strength to keep on even after reading a review like this one. We all aspire to be the fourth book that deserves praise. 🙂

  6. Richard A. Kauffman says:

    Others have already said what I would have said. Not all memoirs are publishable, but there are other reasons for writing them: to make sense of one’s own life, to leave a legacy to one’s family and friends, etc. I feel guilty about having told a woman who shared her partially completed memoir with me that I wasn’t sure anyone besides her closest relatives and friends would read it. I think she stopped writing it, which is a shame. For herself she probably needs to complete it. There is a lot of self-absorption in what is passing for memoirs, and if that is what Genzlinger is objecting to, then I would agree.

    • shirleyhs says:

      I agree, Richard. I found myself chuckling and agreeing as I read. When I have not liked a memoir, I usually found the voice whiny or the values shallow. The essay was brilliantly, cleverly written. It had to be. Otherwise, how justify the precious standards one holds?

      But does brilliance justify cruelty? As a reviewer, I try not to be cruel while still offering critical reflection. Genzlinger moved close to the edge of cruelty in this piece (the place that also guarantees readership and attention, as we all are proving), although he can safely lampoon writers who drive limousines without raising populist ire.

      Oh, now we are into class analysis. Who would have thought there would be so much to talk about in one review?

  7. I do think that Genzlinger in this negative review, does write a pretty good essay and makes a good point: Good memoirs deal with discovery; we go on that journey with the writer if the writer takes on the task of the search. My comment in no way reflects on the three memoirs he discounted.

    More to the point: Pierre Bayard in _How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read_, a book truly worth reading for its wisdom and satire, quotes Oscar Wilde. He introduces Wilde in this way: ” …[C]riticism, having cut its ties to a work whose constraints handicapped it, end[s] up revealing its relation to the literary genre that most emphatically foregrounds the subject, namely autobiography.” He then quotes Wilde from the essay “The Critic as Artist”: “That is what the highest criticism really is, the record of one’s own soul.” Bayard, p. 176

    David Shields in his controversial and excellent book _Reality Hunger_expands on the lyric essay as art and what constitutes a search worth reading about. He says, “Just as out-and-out fiction no longer compels my attention, neither does straight-ahead memoir.” Shields, 211 (entries are numbered and not traditionally attributed; thus, the controversy among other things, but this is Shields), p. 70. Read this book. Talk about it! This book should be on every writer’s list–love it or hate it–it’s worth it.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Mary, you do a great job of responding to Kathleen’s first question about the role of the critic today. And the Oscar Wilde quote about criticism being autobiography actually explains the hypothesis I’ve been building that the review may be a lament for the role of the gatekeeper, both in what gets published and in what gets read. If Knopf and The New York Times determined both, the world would be better. 🙂

      I have not read David Shields, though I have read the reviews. 🙂 I really appreciate your bringing his words to bear here. I really should read that book. . . .

  8. wjyoder says:

    Genzlinger is basically correct: think twice before you publish. Richard Kauffman says what I felt when I read this piece yesterday. Yes, write a memoir, write it as a “letter” to your family and friends, but have mercy on the trees and us. I agree the benchmark for a “good” memoir is to write in terms of self-discovery and to seek to understand the community out of which one was molded and shaped. Thanks.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Welcome back, Wayne! Thanks for entering the conversation. And for reminding me to reinforce a thread that runs through many other comments above. We should write to discover more than to reveal what we already know or think we know. I lost that sense of discovery for a while as I was writing a memoir, and I stopped writing. Now I feel curious again and want to get back to writing.

      How far do you go in wanting writers to destroy their work? Should they not self-publish and distribute their recollections and stories to friends and family? Should they really hit the delete button?

  9. shirleyhs says:

    Oh yes, and one other thing. I failed to thank Duane Shank publicly in the blog for sending me the link originally. So here is my delayed response. Thank you, Duane. You stimulated some good dialogue!

  10. Dear Neil:

    In the spirit of non-resistance which Eckhart Tolle explains as accepting “what is” to prevent suffering … I won’t resist your message. Some points are well taken, after all.

    However, I will remind you that memoir is about human connection, and in our increasingly impersonal world, the memoir is here to stay.

    As to what is publishable, or not, that question pertains to all genres. Recently, in SunnyRoomStudio, I published a blog post called, Clamoring to be Heard @ http://tinyurl.com/4vhm8vv … and I considered the premise of “too much.”

    I am, in fact, hopeful, that publishers will publish less and market more.

    It seems the glut of books on the market is because publishers do not see themselves as responsible for selling the books they publish — that tedious chore falls to authors, unfortunately. So therein lies the solution.

    Let publishers only publish what they are willing to actively market.

    Just a thought.

    P.S. Thanks for the article post, Shirley.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Daisy,

      Let’s see if Neil responds to your letter here. Wouldn’t that give us all a great surprise? I would love to know what he would say to your request for fewer books and more marketing. If my hunches above are right, he would probably agree with you.

      Thanks for the visit!

  11. Many people write memoirs with their families in mind. I play tennis with an author who wrote a memoir about her years in the Reagan white house. She says she wrote it for her children but she is also making talks about it, etc.

    Daisy, you make an excellent point. There would be many fewer books out there if publishers only published books they intend to help market!

    Thanks for the interesting post.

    Monti
    NotesAlongTheWay

    • shirleyhs says:

      Thanks for coming over from the Sunny Room Studio, Monti. You are welcome here. Your example is an interesting one because it illustrates that even people with a connection to a famous public figure can write memoir primarily for family and friends. It illustrates the point of being clear about purpose.

      Glad you found 100 memoirs. Come back again often!!

  12. Becky says:

    I too feel like everyone has a story, but not all stories are stories that need to be published… for instance, I love reading memoirs about people who have “over come the odds.” For example, I just read an inspirational memoir titled, “Major Dream: From Immigrant Housemaid to Harvard Ph.D.” by Jin Kyu Robertson Ph.D. The book is about a woman who came to the U.S from Korea with only $100. She fought to stay alive- worked odd jobs in factories,worked as a house maid, endured an abusive marriage, but somehow overcame all the odds and ended up graduating from Harvard, became a Major in the Army, and is now Korea’s top motivational speaker! This is the kind of story that is worth publishing.

    • shirleyhs says:

      Becky, so sorry that it has taken me so long to reply to you. I was on vacation in Mexico when you wrote these words. I too love to read about people who have overcome great odds and have gone on to achieve great things. When I was a girl, I read some of Horatio Alger’s stories. Even while I saw through the formula for his heroic tales of “rags to riches,” I felt my spirit stirring with inspiration to achieve. That was fiction, of course, and easy to scoff at, looking back. But the life story we are talking about is the archetypal hero’s journey. Memoir that allows us to feel that power will always succeed. Thanks for your contribution to this rich discussion!

  13. normajeansun says:

    http://rcm.amazon.com/e/cm?t=artkriallcou-20&o=1&p=9&l=st1&mode=books&search=0578020599&fc1=000000&lt1=&lc1=3366FF&bg1=FFFFFF&f=ifr

    Dear Shirley,

    I would like to invite and ask you to consider a possible review of my personal memoir, Norma Jean’s Sun. Based on a True Story, I have found that my life experiences are gathering a fan base and would be honored if also would be interested.

    You can find more information at http://www.kriscourtney.com

    Bless you, Kris

    • shirleyhs says:

      Dear Kris, Thank you for choosing this blog as a place to share your book information. You have an incredible story, based on reading the information you shared above.

      I regret that I will be unable to review your memoir. I have another book on my table right now to review for Christian Century magazine. Once I have finished that read/review, I hope to focus on writing my own memoir and will be cutting back drastically on future reviews.

      Best wishes in locating other places. Have you discovered the National Association of Memoir Writers? Linda Joy Myers, who runs the association, is an expert on memoirs that heal. I hope you find a way to connect with her and NAMW.

  14. normajeansun says:

    Norma Jean’s Sun: Based on a True Story Memoir

    I hope this link works better, sorry about the last post not acting correctly…

  15. Please forgive the duplication thread, I am attempting to find a place to include your Blog and mine perhaps together Shirley ? http://normajeansun.blogspot.com/

    Congrats on the Blog Stat review, great job…

  16. Jessica K. says:

    I like memoirs of “everyday” people just as much I like those of well-known people. I’ve just read two memoirs, one by two journalists and the other a travel memoir. It’s always great to hear others’ perspectives and experiences, and helps me feel like I am part of a larger whole. And as one of the people said in his/her comments, it is like having a vacation from my own life to visit another’s.

    • shirleyhs says:

      I love that comment about taking a vacation from my own life to visit another’s. What we come back with after our vacation is a mirror wherein we can see new aspects of our own life hidden because we didn’t see them or value them. Our awareness is enlarged, and that is valuable. The story has to be told well, of course, that many people can do that, thankfully. And so they deserve to find their readers. All best to you in your own writing, and come back often!

  17. Shirley, thank you for sparking this thought-provoking discussion. I am getting in on this discussion quite late — I read Genzlinger’s critique some time ago, but did not get around to posting until now. While he makes some good points, I am not sure why he is picking on memoirs. There are so many trite, uninteresting, unimaginative novels out there… why did he keep them out of the discussion? After all, they use trees, too.

    I always think the market will sort out successful books from the ones that would have been more productively been turned into bedding for the horses — be they memoir or novel. If three out of four books are not worth the paper they are printed on, why bother even review them? Why does Genzlinger not review books he thinks are worth it, rather than trash the ones he doesn’t think are worth it, and possibly overlook others that are worth a review?

    The last thing I would like to say is that literary merit is in the eye of the reader. Thank goodness we are all different — what is a sinker for some, floats other people’s boats. Genzlinger’s elitist attitude is not going to stop me from making my own choices and buying good memoirs, such as “Breaking Night,” “A Good Daughter,” and “Change Me into Zeuss’s Daughter.” Thank goodness someone had the good sense to know what makes for a good read and published these books. And thank goodness Genzlinger does not get all the say.

    Thanks again, Shirley, for getting this discussion going.

    Saloma

  18. shirleyhs says:

    Saloma,

    You made me chuckle with your description of tree-consuming novels. Touche’!

    As to why he chooses to review memoirs he probably knows he will detest, now that’s a very interesting question! As an editor, he could presumably pick the cream of the crop to review. Maybe his standards are so high that he would excoriate three out of every four books published, period. Maybe he thinks the Times reviews have become too tame. Or maybe he wanted a pulpit from which to preach his anti-memoir sermon. Wouldn’t you love to have his “backstory”?

    Why don’t you send him a copy of your memoir? Along with a copy of our conversation here. Now that would be a bold move! Daisy, above, has already written to him.

    All best,

    Shirley

  19. Shirley,

    First let me say that I was exhausted when I wrote that the other night… I cannot believe how poorly it’s written.

    I think any or all the above could be true about why Genzlinger chose the four books he did to make his point. We all know it isn’t as black and white as all that, though. And that is true about life in general… we cannot say one memoir is unworthy while another is worthy… there are elements of both in all four of those memoirs, I’m sure. All we can really do is say which ones resonate with us. I simply don’t read the ones that don’t resonate with me, the same way I don’t read novels that I cannot learn anything new from.

    About sending him my book — why? Do I really hope to gain access to the Genzlinger Worthy Memoir Club? Or do I give someone with a friendlier attitude towards memoir the chance to “discover” my book? If indeed our hunch is right, that this book will find a wide audience, why let him have the credit? I rather think that would belong to people who have already discovered it. That would be you and a handful of others.

    BTW, in case you are interested, I’m doing a giveaway on my blog for people who have written reviews of my memoir…. you are eligible.

    http://aboutamish.blogspot.com/2011/02/giveaway.html

  20. I think Genzlinger is right, but he’s addressing the wrong audience. His suggestions and complaints should be directed at agents and publishers too willing to run with the kinds of memoirs he criticizes. They too often look for proven niches and brands, not great writers or stories. To be fair, the sheer number of writers submitting memoir floods the field. But writers of all levels will write — for an immense variety of reasons, and personal experience will always be one of the most accessible veins they mine.

    If you think the quality of play in the NBA is subpar, it makes no sense discourage kids on playgrounds and weekend warriors from shooting hoops. Lodge your complaints with the recruiters and coaches. Meanwhile, check out the local courts and you may see some truly inspired play.

    • Shirley says:

      Paul, I can tell you are ready for March Madness. The basketball analogy was fun. Genzlinger seems to want to influence gatekeepers to have higher literary standards, but he also loves tarring the whole genre.

      Thanks for your visit to this blog. I enjoyed visiting yours as well. You’ve got a very interesting concept. My daughter lives in Pittsburgh and loves it. She does a blog called http://www.yinzpiration.com you might enjoy. She interviews a new Pittsburgher every week.

  21. Hi, Shirley:

    Do you have a list of your 100 memoirs? I’d love to see it (before recommending some). Thanks.

    – Lynette

    • shirleyhs says:

      Hi, Lynette. I don’t have my own list of 100 memoirs, but I have two better things to offer: Top Ten Memoir List from Mary Karr is one of my most popular posts–see right side of home page. And here is a link:http://100memoirs.com/2010/01/10/top-ten-memoir-list-from-mary-karr/

      For the best list I know, see Sue Silverman’s–which I also included in a post:http://100memoirs.com/2010/06/06/100-top-memoirs-sue-silvermans-list-will-give-you-even-more/

      Do you think I should make up my own list? I have reviewed about 40 memoirs here, but they are not necessarily my idea of 100 best.

      For me, I wanted to read memoirs most like my own story or else so well-written that I would learn craft from reading them. There’s a little hit/miss in every list, and so I think it’s best to focus on the type of memoir most relevant to you. Sue’s list is fabulous for that, since it is broken into categories. I want to read or reread Mary’s list as my own training ground.

      Let me know if these answers are helpful or not. I think I need to construct a “landing page” that brings people directly to a list if they google “best memoirs.”

  22. shirleyhs says:

    Dear friends who commented on this post about the Niel Genzlinger Times article. You may want to read this one by Lorrie Moore as a kind of antidote: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2011/may/12/what-if/

    My thanks to Jerry Waxler who posted the article on Facebook.

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