Memoirs of Trauma
Last year, a number of reviewers noted an increase in the publication of memoirs, particularly memoirs of crises or traumatic incidents in the lives of the authors. "True torment sells," Doreen Carvajal wrote. "In an anxious and flat sales environment, publishers are buying the real life memoirs of private men and women with names that would not sell an American Express card, but traumas that will get them a talk show slot." Several articles analyzing the trend and its import to readers, modern literature, and society were published recently, with some critics asserting that the rise in popularity of memoirs is akin to that of the voyeuristic appeal of tabloid talk shows and indicates a lowering of standards in modern publishing. Others welcomed the increase in memoir publishing, seeing it as a healthy way for writers to exorcise their demons that is neither voyeuristic nor damaging to the literary sensibilities of readers. There is one element of the debate over which there can be no argument: true-life drama sells. Memoirs are now a staple of best-seller lists, and the National Book Critics Circle is considering adding a separate category for memoir to its prestigious annual awards.
Critical reaction to the books themselves has been mixed, and at times contentious. Tobias Wolff and Jonathan Yardley, both well-known and respected authors and critics, engaged in a printed sparring match over Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, the story of her four-year affair with her father which began when she was 20. In the book, perhaps the most controversial publication of the year, Harrison describes being unable to resist her father's advances, unable to wrench herself free of the psychological imprisonment that she learned later to understand. Wolff defended the author while castigating other critics, declaring, "The reviews of Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss are enough to make you think she had committed a crime in writing about her seduction by her father and the bitter sexual entanglement that followed." Wolff further contended that, in their negative reviews, Yardley and several other critics used Harrison "as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir." Yardley responded with the assertion that The Kiss, regardless of its genre, is "an irredeemably rotten book." Noting that Harrison's published fictional works deal with much of the same subject matter, some accused her of telling the same story again, but this time calling it autobiography, to further her career. "It might be better if this woeful memoir had been a novel; its tone of hysterical self-obsession might pass as fiction," Martha Duffy proclaimed. "But Kathryn Harrison has already drawn on the theme of adult incest in her 1991 novel, Thicker than Water, to no great reverberance, so in The Kiss she tries the currently fashionable route of confession." For the shock it has elicited from critics and readers, The Kiss has been compared to Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, the fictional story of a man's incestuous relationship with his stepdaughter. "But if her father is a Humbert," James Wolcott asserted, "his daughter is no Lolita. The shock revelation in The Kiss—and, presumably, its selling point—is that the father-daughter incest it recounts is not childhood exploitation, but a consensual act between two adults."
Critical opinion of Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes, the Pulitzer Prize-winning story of the author's desperately poor childhood in Limerick, Ireland, was resoundingly favorable. The oldest child of Angela and Malachy McCourt, Frank recalls beginning his life in a New York slum, then moving to his parents' homeland where they hope to find a better life but instead become hopelessly mired in an even more grievous existence. As the family grows, Malachy's drinking worsens: during the few-and-far-between times when he holds a job, his paycheck ends up in the hands of the local barkeeps. Food is scarce and proper clothing, shoes, and bedding never enter the grim reality of the McCourt household. The house itself is an unheated rental next to the neighborhood latrine; when it rains the downstairs floods with rainwater and overflow from next door. Over everything hangs the poisonous pall of the River Shannon, feared as the source of the respiratory ailments which plague the residents of Limerick. Frank survives; one sister and two twin brothers do not. His survival is more than corporeal, however: critics describe Angela's Ashes as evidence that, despite the grim facts of his first nineteen years, McCourt retained love for his family, an exceptional storytelling ability, and an abiding wit. "McCourt relives [his] childhood with tenderness and, above all, humor," Trudy Bush observed.
While Angela's Ashes occupied one end of the critical spectrum and The Kiss held the other, many more memoirs drew the interest of critics and readers in 1997. Like Angela's Ashes, Agate Nesaule's A Woman in Amber and Rick Bragg's All Over but the Shoutin' also portray traumatic childhoods, hers in wartime and his in poverty. In Autobiography of a Face, Lucy Grealy allows readers a glimpse of life within a deformed body. Linda Katherine Cutting (Memory Slips), Gillian Helfgott (Love You to Bits and Pieces), and David Pelzer (A Child Called 'It') relate stories of childhood abuse and its residual affects in adulthood. With Darkness Visible, novelist William Styron exposes the impact of a depression that slowly enveloped his life. My Mother's Keeper (Tara Elgin Holley), Imagining Robert (Jay Neugeboren), and Mad House (Clea Simon) explore the challenges of living with a mentally ill relative. The short stories collected and edited by Laurie Stone (Close to the Bone) and Kathryn Rhett (Survival Stories) offer a variety of autobiographical sketches.