Memoirs of Trauma

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 7441

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...

(This entire section contains 7441 words.)

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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 inBlue 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 because it is "an irredeemably rotten book."]

Apologies at the outset on two counts: (a) for raising once again the subject of that odious book The Kiss and (b) for doing so with frequent use of the first person singular. Neither is to my taste, but like the maiden in an ancient two-reeler, I find myself called upon to defend my virtue—such of it as may still remain—and must do so under those conditions.

This arises because last week the novelist, memoirist and writing-school guru Tobias Wolff was granted a prestigious position on the op-ed page of the New York Times to defend Kathryn Harrison, author of The Kiss, and to attack those who have taken exception to that book. Yours truly is high on Wolff's list of malefactors. Along with Michael Schnayerson, writing in Vanity Fair, and James Wolcott, in the New Republic, I am accused by Wolff of inflicting "rage" upon Harrison. This leads him to a spectacular exercise in mind-reading and sweeping generalization:

"The truth is that they are using [Harrison] 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."

What, pray tell, has that man been smoking? Speaking only for myself, I can say with absolute confidence that not a single word in that paragraph is true. I have anything except "animus" against the memoir. I made no statement "of suspicion or downright contempt" for—I love this smarmy, oleaginous phrase—"the personal writings that have recently found favor with readers"; I said only that Harrison was "exploiting the current infatuation with confessional memoirs." I have no interest in running with any crowd, whether it be the fashionable memoirists whose cause Wolff embraces or some hobgoblin "Border Patrol" that he has invented.

Wolff is certainly entitled to know little or nothing about my opinions or published work, but if he is going to put thoughts in my head and words in my mouth, he has an obligation to those who publish and read him to be accurate. Had he bothered to make even the most cursory of inquiries, he would have found that not merely am I tolerant of, indeed receptive to, memoirs, I flat-out love them.

How else is one to explain two rather important aspects of my 3 1/2-decade writing career, if anything about it can be said to have any importance? The first is that of the five books I have written, the one of which I am proudest is a combination of family history, biography and personal memoir the subjects of which are my own parents. The second is that the fifth of these books, to be published later this year, is a biography of a writer whose main claim upon our attention is the "fictional memoir" he published three decades ago, a book that, I argue, is one of the monuments of postwar American literature.

How, precisely, could someone laboring under an "animus" against memoirs stand to expend so much time and effort on undertakings such as these? How, for that matter, could that same person have called Mary Karr's The Liar's Club—a book, FYI, extravagantly blurbed by Tobias Wolff—"a work of genuine originality and merit," one that, along with others of similar quality, suggests "the memoir may well be our most important literary form by the turn of the millennium"? Indeed, how could I some-how have managed to have cast forth, within the past year, favorable reviews of memoirs by so disparate a bunch as Gore Vidal, Neil Simon, Peter O'Toole, Jeffrey Simpson, Marrie Walsh, Walter Bernstein, Claire Bloom and Jan Wong?

Ah, Wolff doubtless would say—yes, I am putting thoughts in his head and words in his mouth—many of those are conventional memoirs by conventional memoirists, i.e., people of some years whose lives arouse a measure of gossipy curiosity. By contrast, the memoirists whom Wolff defends are younger and relatively, in many cases totally, unknown. These people, he says, bring "personal reckoning" to their memoirs, and "everything else: a sense of story, formal mastery, moral consciousness, the gift of bringing others to life in words, music."

Them's pretty words, all right, but anyone who thinks that any of the above is to be found in The Kiss is either a fool or utterly devoid of literary taste. The truth, as opposed to Wolff's self-serving fantasy, is that my objections to The Kiss have absolutely nothing to do with its being a memoir per se, or even with its being one of those "personal writings that have recently found favor with readers." My objections are based entirely and exclusively in the simple, inescapable reality that The Kiss is an irredeemably rotten book. Per se.

Precisely why Wolff cannot understand this distinction is for him to explain. Whatever the reason for it, Wolff's failure to comprehend the difference between disliking a specific memoir and disliking memoirs generally is of a piece with the sentiments expressed by a recent contributor to the letters columns of this newspaper, who complained that my review of The Kiss was irresponsible because I failed to express disapproval of incest, the ostensible subject of The Kiss.

These folks just don't get it. The job of a reviewer is to pass judgment on specific books, not to issue blanket endorsements of literary genres or to indulge in psychotherapy. Just because I think The Kiss is meretricious trash doesn't mean that I think all memoirs are meretricious trash; the same line of reasoning would lead one to conclude that since I think Alexandra Ripley's novel Scarlett is, well, meretricious trash, obviously I think all novels are, uh, meretricious trash.

The self-evident truth is that among legitimate literary genres, there's no such thing as a "bad" one. There are only bad books, or, more frequently, mediocre books. Some books are better than others; it is a lamentable but inescapable fact of the lit'ry life. Eight years ago, reviewing a memoir called This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff, I called it "modest and charming and exact," but said it "cannot escape comparison" with The Duke of Deception, by his brother Geoffrey. The latter memoir, I said, "is the darker, deeper and—yes—funnier of the two."

That was my judgment in 1989; I stand by it today. But as is the case with my judgment of The Kiss, it has everything to do with the merits of the books in question, nothing to do with some "animus" against memoirs.

Bob Minzesheimer (essay date 16 April 1997)

SOURCE: "Suddenly, Family Stories Are Selling Like Pulp Fiction," in USA Today, April 16, 1997.

[In the following essay, Minzesheimer comments on the trend toward memoir writing and discusses both public and critical response to books including Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss.]

If Angela McCourt were still alive, her son Frank says, he couldn't have published Angela's Ashes, the memoir of childhood squalor that won him a Pulitzer Prize last week.

"My mother wouldn't have liked the book," McCourt says. "It was too revealing. She was ashamed of our past. Now we're ashamed of being ashamed."

Kathryn Harrison's father is still alive. But when she's asked about her memoir, The Kiss, about father-daughter incest, she replies, "All's fair in love and war." She pauses. "Or nothing is fair."

Both books are best sellers, leading a burst of first-person writing that's turning the phrase "a memoir" into publishing's favorite subtitle. Angela's Ashes has been on USA TODAY's best seller list for 20 weeks—this week as the top hardcover and No. 2 overall.

Nothing is more popular than "memoirs of crisis." Publishers, like TV talk shows, are learning that agony sells, especially when touted as a true story.

"Books that once would have been written as novels are now written as memoirs," says Villard publisher David Rosenthal. "Things that once were taboo aren't anymore. We talk about our sex lives, we talk about our addictions. It's like one big 12-step meeting out there. 'Hi, my name is David and I wrote a memoir.'"

For those who take books as seriously as life itself, that's prompting questions. Is the memoir the novel of the '90s, a newly dominant and more authentic literary form? Or is it merely a marketing fad, a literature of solipsism by writers obsessed with themselves, exploiting family dysfunction to sell books? Has it become quaintly Victorian to suggest that some family secrets—say, incest—should stay secret?

Either way, says J. Anthony Lukas, historian and Authors Guild president, the conventional wisdom that only novelists "touched by heavenly fire could transmute the prosaic stuff of life into art" is dead.

Not that memoirs are new. Long before recovery programs, St. Augustine wrote his Confessions. Memoirist Kathryn Rhett turns to the Old Testament to ask, "What was the Book of Job but a memoir of crisis?" She has edited an anthology, out in August, called Survival Stories: Memoirs of Crisis.

Celebrity autobiographies have long had their niche in bookstores. But never have so many memoirs, often by unknown writers sharing impressions of a slice of their lives, been published and aggressively marketed.

The book world is still buzzing about last month's bidding war over the private memoirs of a great-grandmother in Manhattan, Kan., with an alcoholic husband. At 98, Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux signed her first book contract—for $1 million—with Warner Books.

Editor Clair Zion calls Foveaux's tale an "emotionally powerful story" of an everyday heroine. "We in New York try to sit here and think what the country is thinking. This is Kansas talking."

Memoirs to come include Claire Sylvia on surviving a heart transplant, David Gelernter on surviving the Unabomber and Julia Sweeney on surviving cancer.

Novelist Thomas Mallon, author of Dewey Defeats Truman, quips that he enjoyed "a happy childhood so damaging to a writer," and decries "the 20th century disease"—the view that "negative experiences are more authentic than positive ones."

While acknowledging "some wonderful memoirs," he says novels can be about "a big truth," but memoirs are about an "individual truth."

Frank Conroy, director of the University of Iowa Writers' Workshop and author of the classic adolescent memoir Stop-Time, says memoirs that work as literature go beyond individual situations and are "about the world…. The 'I' is merely a trick, a device."

The recent memoir rush began in 1995 with the critical and commercial success of The Liars' Club, poet Mary Karr's wickedly funny account of her East Texas childhood with a "terrific family of liars and drunks."

Karr's editor at Penguin, Courtney Hodell, credits Karr's writing and "message of redemption," and says memoirs capture the "chaos of ordinary life, not as plotted as novels…. It's exciting and reassuring to read about real lives."

Fritz McDonald, who's teaching a summer workshop in memoir-writing at Iowa, says memoirs are "more accessible and less daunting than fiction. Go into a bookstore and look at the blurbs on novels: Highfalutin' literary terms like, 'Has a wonderful sense of observation.' Memoirs say, 'Here's a story you can relate to.' There's a huge appetite for looking at other people's lives. It's what drives half of TV."

Justin Cronin, who teaches writing at La Salle College in Philadelphia, adds: "We live in a very confessional culture. We're saturated by the most embarrassing admissions, shouted from the town square, which has as much to do with TV as publishing."

Rhett, whose memoir Near Breathing, about her newborn daughter's brush with death, comes out next month, disagrees. Talk-show confessions, she says, put "a great distance between who's watching and who's watched. A good memoir draws readers into another world…. The appeal is not in the subject but in its articulation."

Still, Cronin says, memoirs can "blur the distinction between what's really happening and what's constructed…. A memoir is not a record. It's a memory. And what's the difference between memory and imagination? That's pretty slippery territory."

McCourt, a 66-year-old retired New York high school teacher, tried and failed to write a novel about the misery of his Irish childhood during what he calls "my James Joyce period. All the characters were too dramatic, too traumatic. It was awful."

In writing a memoir, he says, "I found my voice," but struggled over whether to include the scene where his desperate mother had sex with her cousin to help keep a roof over her family's head. He thought of cutting it, but he says his brother, actor Malachy McCourt, convinced him it was "a turning point."

Angela's Ashes has been praised by critics from Entertainment Weekly to The New Yorker. But Harrison's stark account of consensual incest that started when she was 20 triggered a war of words. "Harrison's book was not treated like a book at all," says New York Observer columnist Anne Roiphe, "but rather like an alarming social faux pas."

Harrison's first novel, Thicker Than Water, which did better among critics than among book buyers in 1991, was about a woman having an affair with her father. But Harrison, 36, says that character was "younger, more passive, sweeter and more of a victim than I." It was a book "I wanted to disown. I betrayed my own history." She wrote The Kiss, she says, "not to expose my father," who's never mentioned by name, but "to face up to myself."

And while others debate what it all means, the memoirists keep writing. McCourt, Harrison and Karr all are working on sequels.

Suzanne Moore (essay date 15 August 1997)

SOURCE: "How Was It for Me?," in New Statesman, August 15, 1997, pp. 44-5.

[Below, Moore expresses apprehension over the current popularity of memoir-writing but concludes, "Despite the excesses, I still feel that this has been a good thing, because those who resent it most are usually the most powerful." She also remarks on three publications, Sally Friedman's Swimming the Channel, Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss, and Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica.]

The subject that obsesses us at the end of this long century is subjectivity itself. "How was it for me?" we continually ask ourselves. Such navel-gazing could be attributed to the fragmentation of modern life, the end of ideology, the collapse of the grand narratives or any postmodern, premillennial panic that you care to theorise. We cannot know or be certain of anything outside ourselves; it is all just too confusing. As the grand narratives shatter into millions of smaller ones, all crying "me, me, me", myriad voices whisper: "I may not be a novelist but I know what I'm like."

This belief in the subject as the only viable subject, the self as both author and authored, is not a purely literary phenomenon. Television likes authored documentaries in which quirky presenters give their entirely personal views. The art world likes self-revelatory bad girls such as Tracy Emin and Sam Taylor Wood; newspapers are brimming with the "new solipsists" who write of nothing but themselves, or just of nothing; music loves its self-made stars such as Liam Gallagher, who acted like a pop star long before he ever was one. We are in thrall to "attitude," whatever that means.

It is possible to read all this as incredibly liberating, allowing a plurality of voices that have not been heard before. Or it is possible to see it as the symptom of a supreme crisis of confidence in which no one can speak for anyone outside themselves, in which everyone emotes but no one thinks any more.

The memoir is hardly a new form, but at the moment it seems as though everyone who has had any experience of anything from cutting their toenails to giving birth feels compelled to write one. There is an element of undergoing therapy in public in much of what is published. These are the true self-help books. In the age of Oprah we know that speaking up, spitting it out, will help us "come to terms" with our pasts. But there is also the voyeuristic thrill of watching others who not only wash their dirty linen in public but also point out filthy stains of particular interest. A psycho-babbling culture, combined with media intrusion, has made a mockery of the old divide between private and public.

Despite the excesses, I still feel that this has been a good thing, because those who resent it most are usually the most powerful—and power rests, as we know, on a ruthless separation of the personal from the political. Whether this always makes for good writing is another issue. I have read too many dire feminist novels involving incest or eating disorders in my time and I think that much of this stuff would be better left unpublished. Writing it down may well do the author good but inflicting it upon others is an act of sadism by committed masochists. Anyway, these days the people making money out of rewriting their pasts are the boys, who just seem so much jollier than we do, perhaps because they get a round of applause for merely admitting that they have emotions at all.

So I wasn't overjoyed at the prospect of reading a bunch of memoirs by women. Sally Friedman's Swimming the Channel is subtitled "a memoir of love and loss." What memoir isn't about these things, one wonders? Friedman is an obsessive long-distance swimmer, a bit of a loner who falls head over heels in love with Paul and marries him. He encourages her to swim the Channel but is killed a few days before they are due to make the trip. This is a book about the two loves of her life, swimming and her late husband, and I suppose eventually it is about grieving and that horrible word "healing." It is as brave, honest and painful as these things are meant to be, but for me strangely unmoving, probably because I share neither of her obsessions—swimming or her husband. That may seem unkindly subjective, but the thing about the laying bare of personal pain is that you have to like or want to connect with the person displaying their life before you.

This was also part of my difficulty with Kathryn Harrison's book The Kiss, which is an easier book to admire than to like. It is the beautifully written tale of the affair Harrison had with her father when she was 20. Never feeling good enough for her narcissistic mother, she ends up seduced by her monstrous father. With chilling intensity she describes how the destruction of his internal barriers destroyed hers, and how the affair was a way of trying to penetrate her mother by using her father. In the jargon Harrison is the victim, yet there is something about this memoir that suggests a need to exonerate herself. Is she not culpable? Does an unhappy childhood or even the obvious psychoanalytic interpretation excuse what she has done? Does the quality of her writing cover up the narcissism she has inherited from both parents?

Jenny Diski's Skating to Antarctica shows precisely what can be done with the form in the hands of a writer who is more interested in the world than in herself. Exploring her genuinely horrific childhood and the strangeness of Antarctica, Diski, an immensely cool writer, unravels both with superb understatement. Her seeking of oblivion, a denial of self, means that she has the writerly ability to distance herself from her own pain so that even in her darkest hours she can be wry. If for a true solipsist others exist only as an idea, Diski is no such creature. In writing about herself she is writing of many other lives, too. She trusts neither experience nor memory to reveal the whole truth. As she says: "There are infinite ways of telling the truth, including fiction. There are infinite ways of evading the truth, including non-fiction."

In between the mountains of self-obsession and self-deception that pass for heavily marketed "honesty" these days, that finally might be as much as we can ever know about ourselves, or anyone else for that matter.

Michiko Kakutani (essay date 21 October 1997)

SOURCE: "Woe Is Me: Rewards and Perils of Memoirs," in The New York Times, October 21, 1997, p. E8.

[In the following essay, Kakutani remarks on the process of memoir-writing, asserting that "the current memoir craze … has encouraged the delusion that candor, daring and shamelessness are substitutes for craft, that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one," and analyzes two collections: Laurie Stone's Close to the Bone and Kathryn Rhett's Survival Stories.]

In her 1995 memoir Dreaming, Carolyn See described her father and stepmother's participation in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings: "Those people in A.A. in the late 40's and early 50's can be said to have reinvented American narrative style," she wrote. "All the terrible, terrible things that had ever happened to them just made for a great pitch."

Although the last few years have witnessed the publication of memoirs like Mary Karr's Liars' Club and André Aciman's Out of Egypt, which are masterpieces of the genre, it has also witnessed a flood of self-pitying, exhibitionistic and poorly written pitches that belong on afternoon television, not between the covers of a book. The current memoir craze has fostered the belief that confession is therapeutic, that therapy is redemptive and that redemption equals art, and it has encouraged the delusion that candor, daring and shamelessness are substitutes for craft, that the exposed life is the same thing as an examined one.

Both the perils and rewards of memoir writing are on display in two new anthologies: Close to the Bone, edited by Laurie Stone, and Survival Stories, edited by Kathryn Rhett. The big problem with these books stems from their self-important subtitles (respectively, "Memoirs of Hurt, Rage and Desire" and "Memoirs of Crisis"), subtitles that suggest a kind of literary ambulance-chasing, a "Hard Copy" set of mind. What you're getting with these books, the subtitles suggest, are stories about people in extremis, people who have suffered horrific violations, committed awful crimes or survived terrible odds.

"For Close to the Bone, I solicited writers energized by the new wave of candor and willing to cut as deep," Ms. Stone writes in her introduction. "As far as specific subject matter was concerned, I didn't want to be prescriptive. Everyone's pornography is their own. At the same time, I was looking for material relatively unexplored in literature." That material includes a girl's incestuous longings for her brother ("Brother," by Jane Creighton), a boy's sexual violation by his mother's boyfriend ("Baby Doll," by Terminator) and a middle-class drug addict's flirtation with inner-city crack dealers ("Pipe to the Head," by Jerry Stahl). Though each of these narratives is written in the first person, they all have the faintly stylized feel of fiction; indeed in another age—even five years ago, say—such works would have probably been published as short stories.

Close to the Bone also includes more conventionally written memoirs: Lois Gould's wistful but unsentimental portrait of her absent father ("Businessman"): Phillip Lopate's meticulously detailed meditation on his father's life ("The Story of My Father") and Catherine Texier's moving account of her 40-odd years searching for her absent father ("My Father's Picture"). These three contributions could each stand alone as small, finely hammered examples of the autobiographical essayist's art. For that matter, Close to the Bone as a whole turns out to be a far more substantial collection than its melodramatic title suggests: engaging, often powerful writing is its common denominator, not therapeutic or shock-the-reader revelations, as its publisher would have us believe.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said of Survival Stories, a decidedly more uneven volume that conflates literature and therapy, genuine tragedy and self-dramatizing shame. In this volume, Ms. Rhett plucks excerpts from books by writers like William Styron and Jamaica Kincaid, pulling her selections out of context to italicize already extreme emotions. She lumps stories about cancer and physical disfigurement together with stories about adultery and divorce, and she uniformly refers to her contributors—even those who simply worked at a blue-collar job or confessed to an illicit affair—as "survivors," a term once reserved for people who lived through wars or famines or the Holocaust.

Although there are some affecting, beautifully written pieces in Survival Stories—most notably Rick Moody's impressionistic portrait of his late sister and Frances Mayes's fiercely observed account of her Gothic childhood in Georgia—all too many of the entries reflect the collection's therapeutic ethos. Ms. Rhett writes in her introduction that the book grew out of a workshop she taught at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival on the "memoir of crisis," and out of her own wish that "there were a section in bookstores for memoirs about bad times."

"You had to search through biography in most stores," she writes, "and then sometimes under subjects; the unhealthy baby stories, for example, were mixed in with all the parenting and baby-care books. My reading desires were not restricted by subject—I wanted to read about people at jarring moments in their lives, and cared more about quality of thought and writing than about topic." Reading other people's "crisis memoirs," Ms. Rhett writes, helped her cope with the difficult birth of her own daughter and made her feel "befriended."

No doubt writing can serve a therapeutic, even cathartic function. No doubt first-person accounts of living with cancer, losing a child or coming to terms with sexual abuse can provide solace to readers coping with similar problems. To go further, as Ms. Rhett does, however, and suggest that "the crisis memoir" is a form of literature, that it has a distinctive esthetic, is to succumb to sentimental pretension. In fact, for all Ms. Rhett's protestations that crisis memoirs do not resemble talk shows or support groups in "purpose, method and effect" many selections in this volume sound uncannily like stories recounted on Oprah and Geraldo.

Floyd Skloot writes about chronic fatigue syndrome in terms of balancing "the quest for understanding my illness with the quest to lead a rich life despite my illnesses's inexorable presence." Nancy Mairs talks about her husband's adultery in terms of her work of "reclaiming human experience, insofar as I can find it embodied in my own experience, from the morass of secrecy and shame into which Christian and pre-Christian social taboos have plunged it." And Laura Philpot Benedict speaks about overcoming the guilt she felt over an adulterous affair by going into therapy and beginning "a process of self-discovery" that she has "cultivated and developed continuously since."

By lumping such shapeless, psychobabble-filled pieces together with the polished works of writers like Rick Moody and William Styron, Ms. Rhett does a disservice to the reader. She suggests, absurdly, that you do not need craft or artistry to become a writer: you need only a crisis. In doing so, she assumes that the memoir and the pitch are one.


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