Is Memoir the New Novel–And Does it Matter?

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!

The article below, which appeared in Grub Street Daily, was written by Del Smith, who blogs as Unreliable Narrator, and was so stimulating I thought I would share it with you. It begins this way:

Novelist Dell Smith,

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.

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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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8 Responses to Is Memoir the New Novel–And Does it Matter?

  1. I am so intrigued by these sentences:

    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?”

    Galley readers of my memoir have encouraged me to write more in the tone of the “poor little white trash” girl that I was. I find this very difficult since becoming an educated, sophisticated, sixty-something. But I guess that is the difference between being a good writer and a great writer. A great writer would rise to the challenge!

    • shirleyhs says:

      Brenda, you have identified an excellent set of sentences and a challenging memoir issue. I have been writing about my parents in the beginning, so I haven’t yet faced the issue of how to introduce myself. But no matter how hard you try to tell the story authentically, it does constantly change as we change. Dorothy Canfield, an early 20th century writer, wrote a story called “Sex Education” that illustrated how same story changed in the mind of the storyteller over her lifetime. Highly recommended!

  2. marla miller says:

    thanks shirley-i’m in the process of re-editing a novel that’s memoir-esque-actually how I’m gonna pitch it—this affirms my thinking–I also must read his memoir!

    • shirleyhs says:

      It will be interesting to see how these genre definitions shake out over time. Who is it that needs to classify everything, anyway? Bookstore shelving shouldn’t determine how someone writes. 🙂 Genre-bending seems to be popular. I think the way you are doing it is much better than a work that claims to be a memoir but is really a novel. I think the most important thing is trust. The memoir writer should honor truth and facts but can take liberties as long as they are explained.

  3. Gutsy Living says:

    What I’ve experienced is the difference between how my husband views my memoir on our year in Belize compared to how I wrote it. Sometimes you can’t get someone too close to you to give you advice.

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Ha! Very interesting. A whole new topic. But one rooted in Smith’s point above about the multiple perspectives on a single experience. You need to write your own memories, but you might be able to use this difference of perspective for humorous or psychological effect in your memoir.

  5. Dell Smith says:

    Thanks for featuring my article, Shirley. There are as many different flavors of memoirs as there are novels, and a million ways to write them all. I’ve never considered writing a memoir, but if I ever do I’ll probably be an old man looking back. This will be an entirely different type of memoir than one told from my 20-year-old self. Or 50-year-old self. (Come to think of it, I like that idea. Although it’s too late for the first iteration.)
    Marla makes an interesting comment, about pitching her novel as memoir-esque. I’ve never heard of that. A new way of saying you’re writing an autobiographical novel.

    • shirleyhs says:

      You’re very welcome, Del. And you’re right about the varieties within both genres.

      I also agree that a very young person will likely not write a great memoir. But, if he or she keeps good journals and photos, the memoir time just may come! Best to you in all your endeavors.

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