Memoir: Why Do They Hate You So?

A couple of weeks back, The New Yorker ran a review of Memoir: A History, in which writer Daniel Mendelsohn posited a theory for why people get so angry about memoirs. (That is, people are always complaining about a memoir glut, and how memoirs amount to nothing more than a bunch of whiny, self-identified victims publicly airing their woes—whereas you don’t get a lot of backlash against the novel.)

Mendelsohn’s theory is that people hate to be duped, and that memoirs are, by their nature, duplicitous: Even if a writer attempts to be as truthful as possible, the truth is a slippery thing, memory is notoriously plastic, and reconstructed dialogue isn’t exactly hard data.

Eh . . . maybe.

I think there are other reasons:

1) Personal disclosure makes people squeamish. While daytime talk shows and social media would make it seem as though social boundaries crumbled long ago, I think there is still a general discomfort in our culture with learning intimate details of strangers’ lives—and if not in learning the details then most certainly with witnessing the feelings. Here’s my evidence to support that: How often do you cry in public? Which brings me to . . .

2) Other people’s feelings are scary. This is pretty much the same point, except I want to stress the power of the aversion. In almost any social situation, there’s a whole “Oh, don’t cry” thing that happens as soon as someone’s eyes begin to glisten. Even people who know that they’re supposed to let you weep (I live in Northern California) often have a hard time with it, and the same goes for anger, grief, and pretty much anything but cheer. Our culture does not have the “be with/allow” value. We have the “silence/fix” value.

3) Memoirs are tonally tricky. There are lots of poorly written memoirs, many of them superficial, not seeming to understand the gravity of the endeavor. As I’ve written here, I’m a consumer of the compulsively written, jokey memoir, but it does make me uncomfortable, basically because the author is usually treating her suffering as a joke, without compassion. And then there are the humorless memoirs, revealing deep wounds in hackneyed language that makes it even more painful—as if the writer didn’t quite value her own story enough to write through the cliches.

4) And then there’s the motive problem. Why do people write memoirs? I think most people write them because they want to tell their story. Good reason. And I, personally, love reading other people’s stories. But some people write memoirs because they’re trying to get their wounds healed, or win love, or make money, or get back at someone, or all four. And those memoirs are hard to read.

One more thing: A poorly written memoir can feel like overdisclosure. And overdisclosure is uncomfortable, because it assumes intimacy where there is none. A well written memoir can ease us into intimacy the way we ease in with a new friend, revealing personal information when it feels safe to do so.

In other news, my gerbils both suddenly froze, mid-chew, to watch me. We were locked in a mutual stare—all three of us. Then I lifted my hands to start typing again, and they zipped back into their little house. You could almost see cartoon puffs of smoke in their wake.

I am so in love with them.

Once I asked John what he thought it was like to be a gerbil, and he said, “You just suddenly find yourself doing things.”

Anyone else want to weigh in on memoir backlash?

6 Responses to “Memoir: Why Do They Hate You So?”

  1. aphrodite says:

    I just finished reading Jeannette Wells’ “The Glass Castle” and really enjoyed it.

    In other, slightly-related comment news, I like your comment about our culture’s “silence/fix” value. SO true.

    That is all.

  2. admin says:

    Thanks, Judy! I added the Wells book to my wish list. Which means I’ll get to it sooner or later . . . and almost certainly by the holidays next year. 🙂

  3. Sour Fishie says:

    Can you think of examples of all these different kinds of memoirs? Would love to know. . .

    I’m thinking of giving this post to my students. Maybe combined with the New Yorker article? Haven’t read it yet though,

  4. Melissa says:

    Sarah, that’s the beauty of a blog: You can make grand claims without substantiating them. I think more than anything what I’ve read are the stunt-blog memoirs, which are pretty well aligned with the did-it-to-make-money memoirs (Eat, Pray, Love; Julie and Julia; The Know-It-All) . . . and then the jokey memoirs (House of Cards; Helping Me Help Myself; Well Enough Alone; Swish), which can also feel as though they were written to make money. (Though sometimes they’re just fun.) I’ll try to think about memoirs in the other categories. Certainly celebrity memoirs can feel like overdisclosing and trying to get wounds healed—I’m thinking of Andre Agassi et. al.’s Open, which I haven’t read more than a few pages of, since the Fresh Air interview creeped me out. One example of a haunting, gorgeous and really hard to read memoir: Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking.

  5. Sour Fishie says:

    Year of Magical Thinking is sitting on my shelf right now! Trying to figure out if I have the stamina for it, given how anxious I get about losing Nico and Simone during pregnancy. I heard about 2 minutes of the Andre Agassi interview and was shocked. He seems like a complete train wreck. I can’t even remember what he said, but I remember you writing a great post on it. (At least I think I did. .. going to look for that.) Haven’t read any of the other ones you mentioned. I love your grand claim though! The craft book I teach, Tell It Slant, has nice little tidbits on tone and how things can sound like over-disclosing etc. (At least I think it does. A totally basic, beginners book btw, and not worth looking at.)

    Okay, back to revising my pregnant man story. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Sigh. . .

  6. Eric C says:

    I love this author’s assessment of memoirs, and agree with a lot of her points, but I have to disagree with one assumption: memoits contain full disclosure. It seems all of the points are geared around this premise.

    I review–and critique–military memoirs on my website, and what I’ve found is that they are mostly dishonest. Soldiers can’t, or won’t, write about the full truth. They hide they uncomfortable, embarrassing details. War is too ugly, too brutal, for most authors to fully embrace it. For some, they just can’t do it emotionally.

    That or they have an axe to grind, and it makes for uncomfortable reading.

    Anyway, great post, I’ll RT it.

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