Memoirs of Trauma Overview - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Doreen Carvajal (essay date 5 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Book Publishers Are Eager for Tales of True Torment," in The New York Times, April 5, 1997, pp. 1, 37.

[In the following essay, Carvajal surveys the upswing in publication of memoirs in recent years and provides an overview of a number of titles.]

The line is swelling for literary confession and Ira Silverberg is a somewhat reluctant confessor. His authors are freely spilling ink and intimacies, tales of brother-sister incest and cross-dressing seduction, and the travails of a man stalked by a scorned woman who demanded more vigorous beatings.

But he is feeling uneasy about one writer's proposed sequel to a harsh memoir of drug addiction. "I passed on his version of being a sexual compulsive," said Mr. Silverberg, the editor in chief of Grove Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic. "It was lacking the depth of self-revelation that works."

True torment sells. 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.

A retired high school teacher's memoir of his impoverished Irish childhood is No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list, and publishers are still recovering from a fierce bidding battle over rights to a Kansas grandmother's homespun book about Midwestern life and an alcoholic husband.

By the frantic fall season—prime time for bookstore traffic and publishing profits—the nation's publishers are preparing to release a torrent of confessionals that offer competing visions of anxiety. Rape, downsizing and disease. Depression and blue huckleberry jelly recipes. The "cellular memories" of a heart and lung transplant recipient who mysteriously developed her donor's zest for beer and fried chicken.

Anorexia is a particularly high-fashion literary theme; at least three young authors are reminiscing about self-imposed starvation with advances from several major publishing houses. Earlier last year, Disney's Hyperion purchased Lori Gottlieb's adolescent diary, "Stick Figure," for six figures amid sniping from rivals that the 11-year-old anorexic diarist seemed rather poised.

"My second book will be about me at age 30," said Ms. Gottlieb, who would not reveal more. "I don't know if I will continue to write about myself after that because I don't want to exploit it. At a certain point, people start to ask, what makes you so interesting?"

If this all sounds like the print version of the television anxiety show circuit, some writers and publishers gamely credit the programs for creating a tolerant climate for revelations.

Lonely readers, they say, are yearning for truth and the intimacy of reality literature, which has become so plentiful that the National Book Critics Circle is debating whether to create a separate award category for memoir. In turn, publishers want to sign memoirists because they make the most effective salespeople. With the right mix of charm, insight and writing talent, a first-time author like Frank McCourt has been able to nurture his memoir, Angela's Ashes, from a modest printing of 27,500 to the top of the New York Times best-seller list.

So many confessionals are in the works that on Tuesday the Authors Guild will be host to a quintessential New York debate that poses the question "The Memoir Explosion: Novel of the 90's or Just Another Brand of Therapy?"

Come fall, readers will be able to plunge into the first person universe of a man growing up gay in the "aluminum sided wilds" of Little Falls, N.J., or a woman growing up gay in the strict, blue-collar, Roman Catholic atmosphere of an unnamed New England town. There are helpful recipes for kosher latkes—the inspiration for a writer's exploration of her Jewish heritage—and for jam as the antidote to Debby Bull's heart wreck in Blue Jelly: Love Lost and the Lessons of Canning. There are fill-in-the-blank memoirs (The Book of Myself: A Do-it-Yourself Autobiography in 201 Questions) with ample space for regrets and natural hair color.

Even the art book publisher Harry N. Abrams is offering an illustrated memoir, Out of My Mind: An Autobiography by Kristin Nelson Tinker, the former wife of the late singer Ricky Nelson. Among the paintings is a courtroom battle scene with her brother, the actor Mark Harmon, who sought custody of her youngest son after forcing her into drug rehabilitation.

In publishing, success creates imitators and many editors contend that the current wave of reality literature dates back to the publication of The Liars' Club: A Memoir, a 1995 best-selling tale of the poet Mary Karr's East Texas childhood and "terrific family of liars and drunks." Since then other confessionals have climbed the best-seller lists such as Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, a raw account of her incestuous affair with her minister father.

Celebrities and chief executive officers once dominated the field, but partly because of high-priced flops there is more ample room in the genre for talented amateurs, seasoned novelists and poets accustomed to using "I".

"It seems to me that what's happened is that we're looking for some sort of moral compass," said Ms. Karr, who is at work on a sequel. "We're somewhat alienated and it's hard to know how well you're doing."

The new memoir writers actually have more in common with 18th-century Puritan writers, who were captured by Indians and survived to pen tales of adversity and triumph that were the first nonfiction best sellers in North America. Memoir writers chronicled slavery, the opening of the West and missionary quests. But what's unique about the new wave is psychological introspection, according to Patricia Willis, curator of the Yale Collection of American Literature.

Authors still write about adversity and triumph, but the themes are family traumas, compulsion and identity. The advances are also more generous. Jesse Lee Brown Foveaux, the Kansas grandmother, sold her bittersweet memoir to Warner Books for more than $1 million despite grumbling that the most interesting passages explored laundering techniques.

The contemporary genre can be divided into two categories, victim stories and shame narratives, according to Laurie Stone, the editor of an anthology of memories, called Close to the Bone, which will be published by Grove Press in the fall. What matters, she said, is the degree of insight and drama: "The whole point is not just to flash perversity, but that the writer has a story to tell, that they are using the self as a sort of lab rat."

The hunger for insight is evident at the bookstore appearances of Mr. McCourt, who took almost three decades to write the first volume of his life, Angela's Ashes, and is now at work on a sequel. A crowd of 400 gathered recently among the book-stacks at Borders in San Francisco to listen to Mr. McCourt reminisce about growing up in Limerick, Ireland. ("Worse than the ordinary miserable Irish childhood is the miserable Irish childhood, and worse yet is the miserable Irish Catholic childhood.")

Mr. McCourt, 66, said he had struggled to write a novel, but "my own life kept intruding into my miserable little fiction." He went on: "It was stronger in the long run. I was trying to create a story about growing up in the slum in Limerick and the characters were already there. I was hanging fantasy on them and it just didn't work. The voices were false."

Truth is the muse most often cited by new-wave memoirists who feel no particular need to hide behind fiction or even to warn their real-life characters about literary exposure. Yet the subjective use of memory does raise issues about authenticity.

"There's always a question of verity involved and I'm not casting any aspersions," said Art Winslow, the president of the National Book Critics Circle. "In the first-person memoir, you only have other members of a person's nuclear family with the authority to say, yes this is true or no it is not. It's in their interest to have dramatic tension in the work. There's a danger that could be exaggerated."

Elaine Marr, 30, is a poet and a first-time author who signed with HarperCollins to publish Paper Daughter, an account of her Denver childhood that explores her anorexia and suicidal tendencies along with a failed romantic relationship and her ambivalence about her Chinese-American heritage. She said the revelations would probably not have much of an impact on her parents because they did not speak English.

"We talked about changing names and using pseudonyms, but unless HarperCollins says this is a concern, I am not going to do it," she said. "I just want to be honest. When you write a novel, even thinly disguised, people know what you're doing. The process of standing up and talking about who you are is a little like coming out sexually."

Still, brutal candor troubles writers like Mr. McCourt, who contends that certain secrets should remain protected until family members are dead. He has reservations about the recent work of Kathryn Harrison, a seasoned novelist who turned to the memoir for the first time with the account of an affair with her father that began when she was 20.

"I thought she should have waited till he was dead, and even then I balk at the idea, especially if the person is vulnerable," Mr. McCourt said. "In some ways, there's a feeling of a subconscious vendetta and it makes me queasy."

Mrs. Harrison does not name her father in her memoir. And as a condition of interviews, she asks that no attempt be made to reach him.

"I went to a great deal of trouble to strip away any indicator; I didn't want to expose him," said Mrs. Harrison, who added that as a writer she felt a "great compulsion" to confess. "I wanted to show the workings of the relationship, to really vivisect myself."

Like Mr. McCourt, she is also at work on a sequel, a story of her grandmother, a dominant force in her family.

The sequel will be "kind of a hybrid; the memoir aspect will be the first 30 years of my life," Mrs. Harrison said. "She is the woman who raised me, of which I know early pieces, and I will have to reconstruct or invade her life."

Her first memoir offers a few early hints of the character to come. Her description sketches her grandmother's talent for screaming—"the shriek of a scalded infant, the cry of a young woman raped in the woods, the long howl of the werewolf who catches her scent, who finds and devours what's left of her."

Tobias Wolff (essay date 6 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Literary Conceits," in The New York Times, April 6, 1997, sec. 4, p. 19.

[In the following essay, Wolff defends memoirists as undeserving of the harsh criticism that they often receive from reviewers.]

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. Michael Shnayerson suggests in Vanity Fair that her motive in telling her story was not, as she herself says, a matter of personal and artistic necessity, but a squalid grab for publicity and sales. The Washington Post's Jonathan Yardley dismisses the entire book as "trash … not an artful word in it"—contrived "for personal gain and talk show notoriety."

James Wolcott, in The New Republic, brings the author up on charges of being not only a hack, but also a mercenary opportunist, a liar and a bad mother, a wicked mother, whose autobiographical writings "constitute a narcissistic act on Harrison's part intended to invite misery and humiliation upon her children, especially the daughter, as misery was visited upon her."

I've never met Kathryn Harrison, but I have read her book, thought it remarkably courageous and well-told and have been happy to recommend it. Certainly there's nothing in it to explain the rage "visited upon her" by these critics.

The truth is that they are using her as a target of convenience for their animus against the genre she's working in—the memoir. All of them preface their attacks on her with expressions of suspicion or downright contempt for the personal writings that have recently found favor with readers. They want to be seen as bucking the trend, when of course they could not be more au courant, for it is now entirely the fashion with our self-deputized Border Patrol to mew in dismay at the wistful appearance of any new memoir at the gate of Literature.

Are these books so bad? From my own fairly extensive reading in the field, I'd say this: Some are indeed dreadful; most are mediocre; a few are good; a very few are superb. In other words, they correspond in quality to the new novels I read, and the new stories, and poems. Robert Frost is supposed to have said that there haven't been 500 poets in the world since Homer. We could probably make a case for opening up a few more positions, but the fact remains that at any given time there isn't a whole lot of work out there of the first order, and the contemporary work we do praise in those terms will, if past is portent, mostly pass into oblivion.

That holds true for every genre and form. The novelist, the historian, the poet and the memoirist all labor under the virtual certainly of being forgotten, yet all share equally in the hope of escaping that fate with a book like A Good Man Is Hard to Find or Life Studies or Memories of a Catholic Girlhood.

A memoir is not bad because it is a memoir, but because it is a bad memoir. Of course it's true that many autobiographical writers have made ruthless use of their histories, exploited those who trusted them, betrayed intimacies, displayed their wounds in the marketplace. Robert Graves was accused of doing exactly those things when Goodbye to All That was published.

But when I came to write my own account of wartime service I was guided more by his memoir of World War I than by any of the Vietnam histories I'd been reading to put myself back in the picture. Though we were very different, his trials much harsher than mine and his record infinitely more distinguished, I learned from him. He did not impose global understandings and sympathies on the rather narrow-minded young man he was then, whose area of greatest concern was, after all, the patch of ruined ground just in front of his trench; he treated his younger incarnation with neither condescension nor flattery, but with an objectivity that didn't flinch from revealing the juvenile priggishness, sexual confusion and self-importance to which he was subject, or the courage of which he was capable.

Without false apologies or exhibitions of right-mindedness he made me feel something of what it was like for one particular person to be drawn into that war, submit to its logic, then reject it utterly while somehow continuing to fight. I wanted to know how a man of flesh and blood, not of fiction, made sense of what had been done to him, and of what he had done. It is this sort of curiosity that draws people to memoirs, and it is a legitimate curiosity.

"To have written an autobiography," William Gass wrote in Harper's magazine three years ago, "is already to have made yourself a monster." His point was that the autobiographer is bound to puff himself up, to lie, to take revenge, to hide the greater sin by confessing the lesser, to crown herself with a halo. If this is true, it is no more true of memoirists than of other writers. What is the novelist's sentimentality (whether expressed in desperate cheer or easy cynicism) but a lie of the heart, and the conceit that nobody else is smart enough to see through it? Do poets not take revenge? Read your Catullus. As for halos, isn't Mr. Gass wearing one here?

Writers of all kinds are prone to self-idealization. But the best memoirists have an astonishing capacity for seeing themselves in the round, fully implicated in the fallen creation of which they write. Think of George Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant." There's no conceit here, no halo, no getting even with an unkind world, only the absurd helplessness of a man taken prisoner by his own spurious authority.

We see the same honesty at work in Susanna Kaysen's description of going to an ice cream parlor with her fellow lunatics in Girl, Interrupted, Frank Conroy's obsession with the yo-yo in Stop Time, Mary McCarthy's account in Memories of a Catholic Girlhood of how, by pretending to lose her faith, she actually lost her faith, Mary Karr deviling her legless grandmother in The Liar's Club.

We demand this sort of personal reckoning from the memoirist, and then we demand everything else: a sense of story, formal mastery, moral consciousness, the gift of bringing others to life in words, music. Auden said it all:

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and innocent
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,
Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives.

Even memoirists.

Jonathan Yardley (essay date 14 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Thanks for the Memoirists," in The Washington Post, April 14, 1997, p. D2.

[In the following essay, Yardley rebuts Tobias Wolff's defense of memoirists, particularly Kathryn Harrison, asserting that he objects to Harrison's The Kiss not because it is a memoir but...

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