One of the joys of writing a memoir blog for more than three years is that people send in relevant articles. Today I got this one about memoir replacing the novel from Simone; last week I got a message from Clif. Thanks, friends!
I’m a fiction snob. I read mostly novels and stories; I’m drawn to the characters, the voices, and the endless points of view. If a novel’s protagonist is familiar, I draw a sympathetic comparison and nod in recognition. If the protagonist is unusual, reading the story is a chance to discover something new and see lives drawn from outside my experience but with universal emotions and attitudes.
As a fiction reader (and writer), I need to know: Why are so many writers telling their stories as memoir? Starting in the early ‘90s, memoirs became a very popular narrative form, mostly because they were starting to be written with the techniques of character-driven literary and genre fiction. Books like Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers; Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs; The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey, among many others have been bestsellers and award winners. The problems begin when these books are published as non-fiction. Frey admitted fabricating parts of his memoir. Burroughs was sued by the Turcotte family he lived with during the events of his story, and was forced to call his memoir simply a ‘book’.
Memoirs must be looked at through the spectrum of their origins. Namely the author’s memory. “Remembering by its very nature is a reconstructive process that often leads to distortion,” says Psychology Today researcher Nicole Dudukovic (1). “We piece together our memories from the fragments of life’s events that we’ve retained. We don’t have exact copies of events stored in our brains. Our memories of life experiences are influenced by our unique perspective during the experiences as well as at the time of remembering. The myriad of events that occur and the vast knowledge that we gain throughout our lives influence our memories of the past. If our autobiographical memories are always reconstructed and influenced by our current perspective, is writing an accurate memoir ever possible?”
Dave Eggers introduces his memoir with a disclaimer admitting his work leans toward the make believe: “This is a work of fiction, only that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people…and had to fill the gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real.” He also says liberties were taken with chronology.
Here’s the complete article. I encourage you to finish it.
Oh, and click on the links and read the “Fifteen Most Over-rated Authors.” Hint, Amy Tan, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins and Sharon Olds are on the list! I’d love to hear your thoughts. Lots to think about in this post. Smith has considered several important issues from many angles. I find the intersection of stories and the marketplace (both of ideas and of money) utterly fascinating. I keep looking for answers to the question, “Why memoir? Why now?” If you are equally fascinated, tell us what sentence caused you to take note.