I teach memoir, read memoir, and publish memoir. I love memoir, and I’m not alone. It’s a popular genre, the genre of the people. It’s also the most reviled genre—perhaps exactly for this reason. Every few months some literary elitist comes out with a memoir-bashing article, so replete in its criticism and condemnation that it reminds us just how hated memoir is by some.
This month’s reminder came from William Giraldi, a contributing editor to The New Republic. His article, “The Unforgivable Half Truths of Memoir,” uses the ten-year anniversary of the fallout of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces as an opportunity to crap on memoir, basically. But why? Is he really still so upset about this event, still stewing ten years later? Or is this a thinly veiled attempt by a novelist to remind us that fiction is “real” literature and memoirs are somehow upending the order of the universe. For instance, none to subtly, he writes:
The average memoir is at the fore of the kindergartening of American letters, wherein Emersonian self-reliance becomes salubrious self-expression.
The whole sentence is pretentious, but kindergartening? Okay then.
Interestingly, there’s another ten-year anniversary this year—and it’s of the publication of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat, Pray, Love. It’s my great privilege to have interviewed Gilbert a couple times in the last year. Before I’d read Giraldi’s article, I asked her whether she ever feels compelled to defend memoir.
The gist of her response was that she takes the high road, and that once you’re in defense mode, you’ve already lost. And yes, I considered my loser status carefully before I decided to write this defense, because she also said this:
I don’t think memoir needs defending. Really, what I see out there is a lot of fear. All I hear is fear and anxiety around these questions: Who is allowed to participate? What details are appropriate to share? Why does this make me so deeply uncomfortable?
We’ll save the examination of discomfort for another article, but let’s home in on this question of who is allowed to participate, because that’s what I find so deeply troubling about these types of articles—and Giraldi’s piece is definitely a “type.” They can be recognized by the following traits:
- They conflate autobiography with memoir, therefore failing to understand that there’s a difference, showing evidence that the person who penned the article doesn’t really understand the very genre they’re denouncing.
- They make sweeping generalizations. By way of example, Giraldi writes, “As a culture we’re not much interested in the booming inanity of a bestseller’s prose. What matters to us is a true story…” Interesting, and yes, I understand that the italics are supposed to convey sarcasm.
- They state opinions as if they’re facts. For instance, Giraldi states, “Then and now readers prefer memoirs to novels as they cling to the philistine belief that nonfiction is truer than fiction.” Really? News to me.
For some crazy reason that those of us who are not ensconced in the rarified world of the literary elite will never fully be able to grasp, memoir is threatening. This is a world that rewards authors for writing a certain way—perhaps the very way Giraldi has been trained to write. What people like me might call “overwriting.” His is not a language that’s accessible. Writers like this use their words to showcase how much better they are than everyone else, and they congratulate one another by promoting each other and bestowing themselves with more accolades, and by shutting others out.
I live in a different literary world in which generosity reigns, where novelists support memoirists and vice versa, and where writers write and publish fluidly between genres. I live in a literary world where self-expression (which Giraldi calls “simple, the heart’s knee-jerk uttering at midday”) and self-assertion (which he praises as “the marshaling of one’s complete selfhood, the imaginative alliance of spirit, mind, and heart”) don’t need to be compartmentalized.
My dear friend and memoirist Amy Ferris (Marrying George Clooney) has said that memoir saves lives. Let’s consider that statement for a moment. Memoir saves lives. It saves the lives of those who write them and it saves the lives of those who read them. People who condemn memoir cannot and do not grasp their healing power. They cannot and do not understand the degree to which writers are transformed by sharing their stories, and equally so readers from receiving the stories of others—perhaps because their own lives are reflected, or perhaps because a raw emotional truth is bravely expressed.
This singular focus on the truthfulness of memoir is baffling. The genre has always asserted itself to be stories told from a single person’s perceptions, experiences, and memories. That a handful of memoirists have lied about their experiences is wrong. They should be called out, and pay the price for their misconduct. But Frey and others like him are not representative of most memoirists.
Giraldi’s closing paragraph reads as an accusation:
The onus is on autobiography to be more trustworthy, more discerning and dignified, artful and interior, built of a perception that reverses the ordinary, that strives into the accuracy and surprise of language, unafraid of sounding the fathoms of the soul.
Despite the use of the word “autobiography” here, he is pointing a finger at memoirists everywhere. Why are all memoirists suspect for the misdeeds of a few? This kind of reproach paralyzes writers I work with, who agonize over specifics they cannot remember. And yet absolute truth is not memoir’s goal. Instead its goal is to capture emotional truths, and to recount a person’s experiences to the best of their recollection. Not to make things up, but to composite, and to recreate based on what a person recalls from having lived their life. For example, to recreate dialogue based on intimate knowledge and understanding of characters (such as one’s parents) is not lying, and learning how to do this well is called craft.
Perhaps the goal of accusers like Giraldi is to shame memoirists into discontinuing their craft. But this strategy will not work. Memoirists by their very nature are compelled to write—despite and sometimes because of shameful experiences.
If you don’t like memoir, don’t read it. And certainly don’t write about it. So you might be a critically acclaimed novelist, but if you don’t understand the genre, your critique is like Vin Scully smacking down golf, or Bob Dylan slamming rap. It’s unbecoming, and ultimately harmful. One appeal of memoir is that those authors are just like us. They’re human beings having human experiences. It ultimately matters not whether the genre is popular, or better read than fiction (which I don’t think it is). But if you’re threatened, you might consider something most memoirists have already done—going to therapy to sort it out.