It has been called a bonanza, a movement, a spate, a tide. “This is the age of memoir. Never have personal narratives gushed so profusely from the American soil as in the closing decade of the twentieth century. Everyone has a story to tell, and everyone is telling it,” announced William Zinsser, the granddaddy of writing guides, in Inventing the Truth, The Art and Craft of Memoir.
The epoch’s heroic figure is Frank McCourt, who, at 65, wrote a memoir of his mean Irish childhood, Angela’s Ashes, that sold millions and won the Pulitzer. Its boy wonder is Dave Eggers, whose Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a pony-wide micron-deep curl of a pseudo-Joycean memoir about the death of his parents (almost at the same time!) and his raising (at the age of 21!) his brother (only 7!) Its grits-and-gas-pump diva is Mary Karr, who took a year-long ride on The New York Times bestseller list at 42 with The Liar’s Club (Texas kidhood with crazy ma). Its seductive wacko is Elizabeth Wurtzel, whose Prozac Nation delineated depression and whose newest More, Now, Again recreates Ritalin addiction. Perhaps the genre’s most infamous embarrassment is Michael Ryan’s A Secret Life, in which the sex-addicted former Princeton University creative writing professor describes carnal relations with the family dog, Topsy.
It is fashionable, a bid for superiority, to denigrate memoir and explain its causes in derogatory terms. The reasons have calcified. Memoir is Jerry Springer. Memoir is narcissistic. Memoir is easy. Memoir is made-up. Memoir is ubiquitous. Memoir is self-help disguised. The counter-argument also has hardened. Memoir is a genre—some practitioners are good, some not. Memoir is not new—vide Augustine. Fiction is exhausted, memoir is vital.
Here are two plausible, but partial, explanations: “I think it’s a matter of Frank McCourt and Mary Karr being these breakout books,” says Villard publicist Brian McLendon. “And publishers say, oh, look at that. Kind of like we now have all these adventure books after Into Thin Air. I think those two, McCourt and Karr, are the two that are responsible for the spate of memoirs we’re having now.” On the more comprehensive side: “Day by day we are hearing more about psychological Darwinism, DNA markers, genetic profiling, and we feel less and less self-determined,” says Basic Books publisher John Donatich. “The news from science is even our moods are chemical. Memoir insists on the life story. It’s therapeutic but also existential. It asserts, I’m here to tell it. I exist.’”
The hard-nosed suspect that economics are to blame. Like reality television, nobody memoirs, in one sense, are cheap to produce. The nobody gets a lower advance, obviously, than Jack Welch’s $7.1 million or Bill Clinton’s estimated $12 million. But editors and publicists point out that the business of nobody memoirs is really not all that different from that of the first-time novel, with one important marketing distinction: You can sometimes book a first-time nobody memoirist on NPR, Morning Edition, Dateline and the like, while you can’t book a first-time novelist. As one editor said to me, “What would they talk about? Character development?”
I have read more than a dozen of the spring memoirs in the last month. Most can be consumed in a night. They are tasty. I pick them up, overheated with scorn, and cool into fascination. Because the nobody memoir allows prurience under the banner of Alfred A. Knopf or Random House, guilt is diluted. Maybe the nobody memoir is merely methadone to keep us from the smack of Sally Jesse Raphael.
To more carefully analyze the nobody memoir, I developed a taxonomy of sorts, and determined, after entering more than 200 memoirs into a spreadsheet, that almost every “nobody” memoir sorts into three types. The largest by far is the childhood memoir—incestuous, abusive, alcoholic, impoverished, minority, “normal,” and the occasional privileged. The second largest type is the memoir of physical catastrophe—violence, quadriplegia, amputation, disease, death. The third is mental catastrophe—madness, addiction, alcoholism, anorexia, brain damage.
My spreadsheet is more interesting for what it lacks. There are no memoirs of falling in love, marriages, weddings. There are no memoirs, as yet, of middle age. There are extremely few memoirs of careers. There are no memoirs of crimes. (The Son of Sam law effectively smothered that.) Memoirs of parenting are essentially memoirs of childhood, but only certain kinds—the impossible teenager, the child injured by genetic defects, disease, or accident. Abusive parents, sexual molesters, pedophiles—none have written memoirs. There are memoirs by teenage prostitutes, but not johns. There are memoirs by battered wives, but not batterers. There are no memoirs of revenge. There are no memoirs of jealousy. The prison memoir—a tradition still viable—is a disappearing species. The African-American memoir—while alive in the hands of Debra Dickerson or Henry Louis Gates—has tapered off from a heyday bookended by slave narratives and Nathan McCall’s Makes Me Wanna Holler.
Novels take on all of these subjects and more. Think of it—a world in which only novels of childhood and physical or mental catastrophe existed. The novel, contrary to the perennial announcement of its death, has bigger aims and more imagination than memoir ever had, or even has now. Sales figures also show that more novels sell than memoirs by vast numbers. So one explanation for the nobody boomlet—that the novel is somehow hog-tied, while the memoir is wild and free—feels wrong. Something else is in play here.
I am on the phone interviewing Daniel Harris, who is in his pajamas. I know this because he confesses in his memoir that he spends most of his days in a house robe because he is a book critic who works in his Brooklyn apartment. This is only the most mildly indecent disclosure he makes. The rest—scatological, pornographic, puerile—are, to a one, revolting. His book is smug and creepy. Memoir has found its Jonathan Swift.
Harris calls himself “a ferocious gangster of a critic.” He began reviewing for small gay newspapers and now writes for Harper’s, Salmagundi, The Antioch Review and Newsday. His previous books are Cute, Quaint, Hungry and Romantic: The Aesthetics of Consumerism, an invective against advertising, and The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, a highly regarded critique of gay life’s assimilation into the mainstream. Harris—taking his cue from Alan Sokal, the physicist whose manuscript of nonsense was published in a critical-theory journal as a legitimate article—once impersonated a queer-theory academic on an Internet mailing list to expose the doctrine’s absurdity.
So to call Harris an elitist is not exactly correct. He attacks high and low. And his impatience with memoir came not so much from hating any individual effort. In fact, he likes many memoirs—Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood and Emily Fox Gordon’s The Mockingbird Years being just two. His pasquinade’s origins come from his exploration of what he calls the memoir culture. “It’s become a populist movement, and I don”t mean in the last decade,” Harris says. “I would say it goes back to the ’80s. It is actually considered a form of folk art—you write it and distribute it to family members and friends. It’s meant to be inspiring to the next generation. It’s also an industry. There are these blank notebooks that are published that you are supposed to fill in every day, and there is also this vast literature on how to write memoir.”
Harris sees this as part of a larger cultural problem—the dominance of narrative. “It’s not really that the memoir has exploded. It’s that there is less tolerance for anything that is not narrative. Every piece of non-fiction these days has an obligation to be told in narrative form. There is no place at all in commercial journalism for writing that is not narrative.” As an example, he describes how he wrote a piece about the fantasies of technology. “It was very analytic. It took an object, an artifact, in this case the screen saver, and broke it down. The New York Times Magazine liked it, but they wanted me to recast it as a personal narrative—you’re sitting in front of the computer, etc.”
Harris also objects to the “fictionalization” of serious non-academic prose. Across the social sciences, from history to psychology, characters are a must. A hero is a necessity. Dramatic scenes required. Analysis, Harris notes, is out of style. Harris’s memoir of no one in particular has no characters, no plot development, no drama. Its chapter headings are Writing, Dressing, Laughing, Fucking, Moving and Making Faces, Speaking/Listening; Farting, Pooping, Peeing, and Bathing; Cleaning and Decorating; Lying, Reading, Ending. And, it lacks the universal memoir plot: I overcame, I survived.
“I think this memoir is really an embittered attempt to respond to my own marginalization,” he says. It is a bear of a read. But like all good satirists, Harris has a point, and maybe even a clue to understanding the memoir movement he spoofs.
Harris’s opposite is Brendan Halpin. He is a 33-year-old English teacher in Boston. Before he wrote his memoir of his wife’s metastatic breast cancer, It Takes a Worried Man, another of the new spring releases, his reading tastes were confined to horror and science fiction, “your basic exploding heads and vampires.” Halpin’s persona is that of a self-deprecating, sit-tight and hang-on honest schmoe. His book is for the reader who likes “this sucks” and video games in his or her introspective accounts of medical catastrophe.
Many blame psychotherapy for the nobody memoir. Halpin would seem to be Exhibit A in such a brief. “I had to write it to stop myself from going insane,” he tells me. “Normally, I lean on my wife. She suggested it. It was therapeutic. I definitely felt it gave me some power over the experience of being caught up in a nightmare. I was able to shape the story.”
Its publication, in keeping with Daniel Harris’s description of memoir culture, came about because Halpin sent chapters to friends. “That’s really all I ever thought would happen with it,” Halpin says. “I wanted my friends to read it. And it was easier than having to have the same conversation about my wife’s progress over and over again. I thought, Well, maybe someday I”ll get this rejected from eight publishers.’”
One of his friends sent it to a friend who was an agent. He read its first eight or so pages, loved it, and sold it to Villard, a division of Random House, in a week. They liked it, Halpin believes, because “I didn’t hide anything.” This meant that parents on both sides were hurt, “because I was a dick. They bent over backwards to help and I was a jerk.”
This is another oft-discussed feature of the nobody memoir, the pain caused to those still living. The genre demands, as does the therapist, that one tells all, so the therapist can remark, “Well, that’s not that bad.” Healing supposedly ensues. In the privacy of the therapist’s office, anger’s expression is encouraged. Healing, again, follows. Except for marital therapy, the loved one can be spared the tell-all and the anger. But in memoir, the loved one is not only told about it, but so is the reading public; and instead of an air-clearing session screamed over the kitchen table, it is preserved in the Library of Congress.
There is another kind of therapeutic transaction here. The reader functions as a group therapy member. Yes, yes, nods the reader listening to Halpin’s horrible admission that he thought his wife’s death would make him extra-sympathetic, thus getting him laid in a snap. I would feel the same way! And without having to pay for group therapy, one gets to know the shameful secrets of others, and can forgive oneself for similar secrets without having to admit them to anyone.
Psychotherapy feels like a contributing factor to the prevalence of the nobody memoir. It offers readymade perspectives that everyone—even video gamers—have breathed in like air. At the same time, the narrowness of the therapeutic requires that the memoirist adhere to certain conventions: brutal honesty and confessions of suffering as well as sins. There is really only one plot as well: the talking cure, in this case the writing cure, heals. Stories of triumph are obligatory.
Therapy is about understanding, or at least recounting, childhood. Perhaps that is why the memoir of childhood is the most common. In my reading, it is the childhood memoir I put down most easily, and must force myself to finish.
Consider, if we must, David Benjamin’s The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked: 336 pages of meticulously crafted narrative of boyhood sporting events, with such sentences as, “We just played, a horde of faceless bundles ebbing and flowing across the ice in pursuit of a textured red ball designed for no sport in particular.” What does the publisher say about this? “A rousing celebration of the lost art of childhood, this hilarious and charming tale of growing up in a small town in the 1950s is entrancing Americana.” Another is Paperboy, by Henry Petroski, a civil engineering professor at Duke and author of nine books, among them The Pencil and The Evolution of Useful Things. A sampling of chapter headings: All You Need Is a Bike, Summer Drizzles In on Long Island, Clothes Can Make or Break the Boy, Ike Praises Newsboys. Says Knopf: “Petroski’s book is the story of a happy youth. He was a successful student at a local Catholic school, the product of a loving family, and a good citizen. During school he took a job delivering the Long Island Press. From this job he learned valuable lessons about diligence, commitment, labor, and community-mindedness that would help shape him as a man.”
Insights, the currency of therapy, flow from these happy narratives, but they feel contrived. And increasing the level of woundedness doesn’t help charge up my interest. Yolanda Young’s On Our Way to Beautiful is about a black southern family with “no decent father,” in which “money sometimes ran low.” A breakthrough of a sort comes on page 187, when Momma says she does not understand her daughter’s yearnings to join a country club by exclaiming, “Who raised you!” This results in the following insight: “Had she really wanted to know, it was not who was raising me, but what I was being raised on, and I could have told her The Facts of Life and Dif’rent Strokes. I wanted to be a preppy, with a nickname like Buffy, and with rich people’s problems, like whether to hook my leather belt with whales or lobster.”
On the same shelf, different race and socioeconomic stratum, Valerie Steiker offers the white Upper East Side childhood—“head to toe Sonia Rykiel,” “my first memory of my grandmother is in a hotel room in Cannes,” “wearing all black and writing depressing poems,” “St. Moritz ostensibly to ski”—and then, in her junior year at Harvard, her mother’s death. At the book’s close, she attains the insight that, “I was one in a line of dynamic women. I had felt for a long time that they were a part of me. Now I saw that I was equally a part of them, of their legacy, which meant that no matter what happened next, I belonged to a trajectory. My grandmother would always be the difficult one with the great legs, my mother the fantastic one who got away, and I would always be her daughter, even if I didn’t have her in my life anymore.”
The memoirs I love best are the motley ones that break the rules of narrative and therapy at once. Characters are elliptical—a pox on development! Dramatic scenes are not very dramatic. Redemption and transformation, well, it’s a stretch. Still, these memoirists hew, albeit with hopeless ineptitude, to the prevailing strategies and forms. They keep superimposing the narrative and therapeutic conventions, only to have reality refuse to cooperate. Karen Brennan’s Being With Rachel: A Story of Memory and Survival concerns her daughter’s severe brain damage after a motorcycle accident.
Rachel, a formerly foxy and fit long-distance runner, comes out of a long coma with her short-term memory destroyed. The “recovered” Rachel speaks gangsta rap in polite society and sleeps with Hispanic men she can’t remember (she retains her pre-accident fluency in Spanish). Loyal mom takes care of her in Nevada, Arizona, and Mexico, having a superlatively awful time of it. Brennan pays homage to the survival plot in her subtitle, but the story is not really about survival. It is about diminishment, distilled at the book’s end into one of Rachel’s journal entries: “I am crying like a small but detailed tree.”
I also devoured Susan Parker’s Tumbling After: Pedaling Like Crazy After Life Goes Downhill. White, middle-class Parker and her husband are hard-core runners, cyclists, mountain climbers, and skiers. Then husband’s bicycle accident leaves him a quadriplegic. Parker becomes his fulltime nurse. Outdoorsy friends drift away. Heavy lifting of husband gets heavier. Anal evacuation, rubber-gloved and daily, wears. Then Mrs. Scott, elderly black neighbor of dirigible size and rhinestone sweaters, knocks on the door. Improbably, she helps, and stays around to help more, becoming a constant friend. They hire a live-in aide, Jerry, “a tired old man, slightly overweight, squeezed into a peach-colored polyester-blend suit . . . a straw cowboy hat in his hand.” Parker attempts the sex allotted her with her husband—lowering of nipples onto his mouth—and neither of them much like it. Solution? Sleeping with Jerry. The “family” expands to include a Tibetan refugee named Harka, who moves in as “an extra pair of hands,” (but not in bed). The writing is not atrocious, but neither is it literary. Think Redbook. The plot goes off course from the transformation theme: Things get worse and things get better at the same time.
While writing began around 3200 B.C., telling stories can be traced back only to Hindu sacred writings, known as the Veda, around 1400 B.C. Next came Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, in 800 B.C. Greece, clearly an epic, not a novel, but nonetheless a story, albeit one told in verse. The earliest manuscript of the Old Testament—rich in stories—dates to 150 B.C. Ancient novels beginning in the 1st century B.C. were either fantastic—Lucian’s The Golden Ass tells of a man who turns into a donkey and back into a man—or implausible romantic adventures, such as Chariton’s Chaereas and Callirhoe.
The first realistic novel ever is often considered to be an 11th century Japanese text about court life, The Tale of Genji. In the 13th century, French troubadours wrote love-thwarted tales in a poetry-prose mix. The genre advanced a little further, eschewing poetry altogether in 17th century France with Madeleine de Scudery’s Artamene and Madame de Lafayette’s La Princesse de Cleves, both romantic intrigues of aristocrats.
Then, in the 18th century, Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding overthrew the romance and the aristocrats by writing fiction about a thief, a bed-hopper, and a hypocrite. It was called the novel. It featured verisimilitude, the unfolding of individual experience over time, causality, and character development.
After Freud and Einstein unleashed their discoveries, the novel retreated from narrative, poetry retreated from rhyme, and art retreated from the representational into the abstract. But today, the novel is capacious; and novelists write narrative, stream of conscience, dreamscapes, magic.
The first memoir appears around the same time as the ancient novels, but with different aims. Augustine, a worldly, psychologically complex man educated in Carthage and Rome, wrote the Confessions in the 4th century. He writes of stealing pears as a boy, bedding women as a young man, and other transgressions, chief among them his scorn for the Bible and Christ. His memoir addresses God, retelling his life through the prism of his newfound faith, reflecting on his sins, begging forgiveness. For centuries, this tradition—prayerful entreaty and inventory of sins—excused the vanity of writing about oneself.
During the Renaissance, a hybrid memoir also came into view with a more nuanced relation to the divine. Montaigne’s Essays of 1595 were not confessional. Nor were mathematician Pascal’s Pensees of 1658. Pascal’s famous wager—“If God does not exist, one will lose nothing by believing in him, while if he does exist, one will lose everything by not believing”—shows how Enlightenment skepticism had changed memoir’s plot and purpose. Memoir was becoming an attempt to know not what one should know, but what one could know.
By the time of Rousseau’s Confessions in 1782, the memoir had become a mimetic narrative; the plot as meandering as life, the reckoning with God, one of many reckonings. Ten years later, the first American memoir—Benjamin Franklin’s—was published in Paris, and it brought still another innovation: humor. Franklin opens with the shrewd observation that memoir is an exercise in vanity, then goes on to disrupt centuries of false piety by writing, “I scarce ever heard or saw the introductory words, Without vanity I may say,’ &c., but some vain thing immediately followed. Most people dislike vanity in others, whatever share they have of it themselves; but I give it fair quarter wherever I meet with it, being persuaded that it is often productive of good to the possessor, and to others that are within his sphere of action; and therefore, in many cases, it would not be altogether absurd if a man were to thank God for his vanity among the other comforts of life.” With the 1908 publication of Nietzsche’s Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is, memoir seemed to have expunged God for good.
Both genres, grossly simplified, move down the ladder of being in terms of subject matter: the divine, the powerful, the aristocrats, the everyman. But memoir, it seems to me, is still at an earlier stage compared to the novel. It is back there in the novel’s 18th century. It’s no longer in thrall to important personages and aristocrats. It has taken up with commoners. But unlike the novel of that period, it is still in a rather prissy place, despite all the protestations about its voyeuristic sexual revelation. No thieves allowed. No customers of streetwalkers. A memoir of a hypocrite—no way. The dominance of the psychotherapeutic has cornered memoir into childhoods, physical catastrophe, and mental affliction. Stuck with only narrative, memoir hasn’t even approached the novel’s mature abundance in which all conventions of storytelling are viable, all kinds of ordering of the chaos are acceptable. Memoir is a toddler of a genre.
My favorite nobody memoir is Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. To be fair, Wieseltier is not a bonafide nobody. As the literary editor of The New Republic he is an important figure in intellectual and literary circles. But his memoir has nothing to do with that privileged position. He takes up a typical nobody subject: the death of his father. More precisely, he writes of his adherence to the year-long Jewish ritual that includes a daily recitation of the mourner’s kaddish, or prayer, at synagogue. This chronicle is only partially of characters and places. It is mostly a narrative of an inner state, but unlike Finnegan’s Wake, it is spoken in an intelligible prose.
It is also unafraid of using a vocabulary commensurate with the sophistication of its thought. It tells of studying the kaddish ritual, a bookish meandering both exhausting and nourishing. It tells of doubt, but not with the concision and disembodiment of philosophy. It tells of pain, but not through psychotherapeutic plotlines. It considers faith, turning it over and over, in a secular age. For me, it is a mind in search of itself, told in words, bettering the revelations of music or art because it can be intimately understood, not just felt. It breaks a cardinal rule of narrative, writing workshops, and contemporary non-fiction editing: Show, Don’t Tell. Wieseltier shows little and reveals so much more.
Kaddish is that rare work, like Moll Flanders, that breaks with many conventions. Some such breaks go nowhere. They exist as curiosities, resistant to the historian’s love of grouping works and men and events into cohesive eras. But sometimes they can herald change. Here in memoir’s preschool, trapped with the same old toys, we see where we are, and how we got here, and one of us, Daniel Harris, is making fun of us. Maybe not this spring, but soon, as Sam Cooke sang, “a change is gonna come.”