The piece on memoir by Neil Genzlinger that I linked to yesterday has attracted some attention in the writing community. It is mostly negative. David Quigg proposes this elegant edit to the essay, cutting out the first three quarters and retaining only the praise for the one memoir that Genzlinger liked.
One of the writers whose work was disparaged has written a response, saying that the review was “a gross mischaracterization of my work and motivations.” That seems remarkably thin skinned – not to mention being an example of intentional fallacy: you can’t review what the writer says they meant to write, only what they actually wrote.
Both of those responses were linked by The Rumpus, which repeats Quigg’s view that the original piece was “distractingly mean.” I agree with that point – the tone of Genzlinger’s article was remarkably nasty. But I still have a problem with memoir.
This was The Rumpus’ original response to the NYTBR piece, and it says things like:
the tragedy of the essay is it’s dismissal of an entire art form. Let’s say you didn’t like realistic paintings, there are people who don’t. It’s odd to say, Why oh why must you people paint!
I disagree with this one, because I don’t think that the original article did dismiss an entire “art form.” It said, specifically, that: “you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” This is not dismissing the whole form. It’s suggesting some criteria by which examples of the form should be judged. The Rumpus [Stephen Elliott] goes on to say: “Under the author’s guidelines we wouldn’t have The Year of Magical Thinking, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City, Jarhead. None of those authors “earned” the right to document their lives,” but surely A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius would stand up to Genzlinger’s criteria because it’s by a brilliant writer who can turn ordinary occurrences blah blah. And isn’t Jarhead about a unique and intense experience (the first Gulf War)? Should qualify. I think Stephen has got overly protective of memoir here due to Genzlinger’s mean tone.
Elliott also says:
Memoir, when not a strictly commercial enterprise, is an art, art is expression. A great memoir, like a great novel, is rare. Most books of every type don’t succeed.
This is true! Most books don’t succeed, so it seems foolish to dismiss an entire genre on the basis that you don’t like several examples of it. At the end of this, I find myself falling between two stools. On the one hand, you can’t stop people writing, and the number of memoirs on the market reflects the fact that people buy them. Inevitably, there will be good ones and bad ones. But I do somehow feel that we ought to have higher standards for memoir writing than we do most other forms, because of the subject matter. If someone’s going to assert that we should read about their life, that’s got to be justified either by the life, the writing or, preferably, both.