Is Memoir a Dirty Word?

Is Memoir a dirty word? Do critics shun the genre?  There seemed to be a period there where nearly everyone had published a memoir; simply having a pulse was enough motivation to put your life on the page. Sort of how nearly everyone I met in my twenties claimed to be a photographer.

Who can forget the James Frey scandal? “Memoir” is, indeed, a contract with the audience: I will only lie about small details.

Many folks have knocked the genre. Hanna Miet sums up the debate in her article “Lies, Truth, and Memory: The Memoir Debacle”:

One of the most recent inflammatory articles was The Problem with Memoirs by Neil Genzlinger in the New York Times Sunday Book Review, which called for “a moment of silence” for the “lost art of shutting up.”

Genzlinger laments the “bloated” genre, which used to be dominated only by writers who had achieved something (that Genzlinger deems) extraordinary.  Today, he says, “memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.”

Then Genzlinger, who has never written a memoir, goes on to list four prerequisites for writing about your life, while reviewing four recent memoirs in the process. (And hating on all but one of them, obviously.)

In Get Me Up Close To the Lives of Others at HTML Giant, Roxane Gay says there is an inherent problem with blanket dismissals like Genzlinger’s — a problem with “Problem With” articles. “The ‘problem’ with dismissing memoir, and particular memoirs written by young writers or chronicling the ordinary life is that it assumes we can only become worthy reporters of our lives, and chroniclers of our memories through aging or experiencing something profound,” Gay said. “There is undoubtedly a certain wisdom that comes with age or experiencing something profound but there is also wisdom to be found in ordinary experiences.  Neither writing nor remembrance are easy tasks and as such I have a real respect for writers who take the journey inward regardless of what inspired that journey.”

Slight and poorly written books exist in all genres. Discounting the whole genre seems rash.

I realized I judge the genre as well, even though I didn’t think I did. I figured this out when I noted I only read memoirs in the summer. Once summer comes and I have two weeks off of work, I find myself browsing the New/Popular section at my local library and picking up memoirs. It’s easier to sit at the kitchen table and read while also conversing with a child about Phineas and Ferb plotlines if the reading is swift and entertaining, rather than challenging. And “challenging” is not the correct word here, but I hope you know what I mean.

Here are three memoirs I’ve read so far this summer:

The Source of All Things: A Memoir by Tracy Ross

Bossypants by Tina Fey

Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel, which is a graphic memoir

In The Millions, Jennifer Miller writes “In Defense of Autobiography.”

What do you think? Is memoir a dirty word? Have you read any great books from the genre lately?

Amber

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2 thoughts on “Is Memoir a Dirty Word?”

    1. Haha. I get the sentiment. There is a reason I gravitate to memoirs in the summer–quick reads, certainly not as densely layered as the fiction I typically pick up. And, if you read at the pool you have to pretend you are actually listening to other people sometimes–light reading makes it easy to multi-task. We need all the genres, I say!

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