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You Talk Too Much, You Never ShuT Up

Well, every few years, someone comes around and feels the need to kick sand in memoir’s face.  This weekend, in the NYT book review, it was the critic Neil Genzlinger. Too many memoirs, too much me, not enough art is the complaint. No one ever says: too many novels, or stop writing those dang poems. And the reason is obvious: the self is dirty. And narcy. And should be private. Genzlinger begins his article (which goes on to trash three out of four mems), “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.” Shut up! He goes on, “Sorry to be so harsh, but this flood just has to be stopped. We don’t have that many trees left.” You can read it here, but it’s so fucking nasty. And I like nasty.

Here’s the rub, with just one Google search on Genzlinger, I find a piece he wrote saying that he often reviews works about disabilities because he has a daughter with Rett syndrome. “Occasionally, I have used my experiences with my daughter as a window into a story for the paper, either about her or someone else with Rett syndrome….The first one, about a Rett family  in Stirling, NJ, drew more reaction than any story I have written in my 30-some years in journalism.” Perhaps this memoir bashing will draw more. Perhaps that’s the point. Or maybe, personal writing is a powerful way of drawing people in.

I’m not standing up for memoirs because I wrote one or because I’ve worked on so many wonderful ones (The Early Arrival of Dreams and A Likely Story by Rosemary Mahoney, Prozac Nation by Elizabeth Wurtzel, Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy, Thinking in Pictures by Temple Grandin, It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong, The Way Home by Henry Dunow, Waiting for My Cats To Die by Stacy Horn, Goat Song by Brad Kessler, A Long Retreat by Andrew Krivak, Let Me Eat Cake by Leslie Miller, Wisenheimer by Mark Oppenheimer, The Place You Love Is Gone by Melissa Holbrook Pierson, Dreaming in Hindi by Kathy Rich, Temple Stream by Bill Roorbach, The Water Giver by Joan Ryan,  Before the Knife by Carolyn Slaughter, When Wanderers Cease to Roam by Princess Vivian Swift, The Sky is the LImit by Neil deGrasse Tyson, Utopia by Karen Valby, and Just Kids by Patti Smith.)

I’m just saying there’s probably one great novel for every 1,000 or 100,000. One great memoir for every 1,000 or 100,000. The stream of prose is beautiful because it is rich with voices. Are all genius, are all perfectly crafted? But for fuck’s sake, there is a value in it just as there is value in fiction, poetry, a box of recipes, a cache of letters. Each one means something whether is succeeds or fails in the marketplace. Whether it gets published or not. Of course, I’ve hated memoirs in my day and thought they sucked, and I turn them down for representation by the droves. The droves! But sometimes when you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Shut it.

What’s your favorite memoir? Give a cheer for memoir! Or not.

113 Responses

  1. I’m becoming increasingly cynical about the thought processes of cynical people. 😉

    Favorite memoir to date: Angela’s Ashes.

  2. I saw the NYT piece earlier today and thought, “Oh, hell.” I’m wrestling with my memoir and have been struggling to figure out what’s missing. Reading Genzlinger’s piece, I was struck by an idea (no thanks to him). Maybe it will suck, maybe it will be brilliant, but I’m out of the corner for now. I can’t pick a favorite, but Anne Lamott’s memoirs have made a lasting impression on me.

  3. Truth & Beauty, by Ann Patchett.

  4. All Over But the Shoutin’, Walking With the Wind, The Kiss, The Color of Water, Autobiography of a Face, Angela’s Ashes, Just Kids, Brother I’m Dying.

    Mary Karr, all 3 books… I’ve been listening to Lit on my iPod for about the 10th time. Real damned poetry.

  5. I love memoirs about people being blindsided; I’m not so much into memoirs about people finding things out by going on vacation.

    That said, I think poetry can stop being printed at any time and along with it, any story about a teenage/young adult girl who is just so outside of the box wait til you see how badass and outside of the box she is.

    • I’m writing a memoir about how I went on vacation and found out that there was nothing to find out. It will revolutionize the travel brochure industry.

      But Bethany, that’s not fair about poetry. It’s only the crap in The New Yorker that has got to stop.

      • Look into my eyes, Viv.

        I.
        Cannot stand.
        Poetry.

        I’m already being quite a good girl by not listing examples and explanations since I know a lot of people here love it. But in other news, I’m about to break my rule to read your memoir.

      • The stuff in the NY-er is crap?! I thought I was just hopelessly ignorant or retro about what I like. Whew, what a relief; now I can just stick to reading the cartoons.

  6. Memoirs aren’t just for the nosy, the rubberneckers, or the researchers. Some are survival guides, like
    Operating Instructions by Ann Lamott.

    I read this book when I was pregnant with my older daughter. It was such a relief to know I wasn’t alone, that other people suspected they might be too sick and selfish and terrified and (after the birth) utterly exhausted to be any good at this motherhood thing.

    Hearing someone admit out loud that she was “probably just as good a mother as the next repressed, obsessive-compulsive paranoiac,” was comforting in a way none of the other baby books—“try exercise!”—could match.

    And she and her son both survived colic, so it could be done. I clung to that hope with my teeth for one long, loud, crazy year.

    • That book should be required reading for every new parent.

    • I forgot about Operating Instructions! How that book saved me when I was surrounded by women discussing how beautiful they felt as mothers, debating between Mommy & Me yoga or pirates…and there I was unshowered, walking my son up and back down the short hallway, praying, begging that he’d stop crying, nine, ten hours a day. And all of those well-meaning women who had “been there”…people spoke of missing those days…no, no one could have been there and missed those days. Five years later, and I still don’t look back and laugh.

      • Make that pilates. Although if there was a pirate class, I’d certainly have signed up.

      • Yes. But daughter not son – pushing her around and around the kitchen table in her stroller in the wee hours… and I still don’t look back and laugh 7 years later.

    • Love Operating Instructions. Love Ann Lamott and her other memoirs (on writing, on faith, etc) as well.

  7. This reminds me of the post last November by Laura Miller on Salon.com. She was complaining that NaNoWriMo encouraged people (amateurs, how dare they) to write novels and that most of these were shite and anyway there were TOO MANY novels, dammit. So please, do us all a favor and STOP THE MADNESS.

    Why stop anyone from being creative? I don’t mean to sound PollyAnna, but how does that help? So Genzlinger’s sick of memoirs, or doesn’t like these particular ones, so what? Don’t read them. You are a critic, but you aren’t me, so don’t stop the flow.

  8. A Sorrow Beyond Dreams, by Peter Handke. Queer, by Wm Burroughs. Confessions by St. Augustine.Down and Out in Paris and London by G. Orwell. “The White Album” (essay but so be it) by Joan Didion.

    The Handke is untouchable. I’ve read it many many times and am never not stunned.

  9. What’s the bleeding difference between memoir and autobiography? Is it just that fancy important people get to write auto’s while common plebes write memoirs?

    And if we can’t have memoirs, than what, we can’t have personal essays? Are we throwing Montaigne out with the bathwater?

    • An autobiography is an account of the writer’s life, pretty much the whole life, from their birth (or before) till five minutes before they put down their pen.

      Memoir is a story of a life, a sliver of it, focused and with something specific to say. This is how Mary Karr gets three memoirs, Augusten Burroughs five, out of a single life.

  10. An Education, Autobiography of a Face, and Tale of the Rose are devastating in the best way. How am I supposed to get any work done with books like that sitting on the shelf?

  11. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken

  12. Trendy to trash memoir for some reason, but many are amazing and gorgeous pieces of literature. A tiny selection I am passionate about:

    *The Worst Journey in the World (Apsley Cherry-Garard) — an absolute stunner despite the prosaic title; the part about finding Scott left me weeping on Metro North

    *Under a Cruel Star (Heda Margolius Kovaly), the first page alone

    *A Walker in the City (Alfred Kazin), classic

    *Strange Piece of Paradise (Terri Jentz), will take you a long time to get over — like nothing I’ve ever read

    *An Unquiet Mind (Kay Redfield Jamison), brilliant

  13. This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff.

  14. I’m glad I only read the NYT when something important happens. If even then. And this is not one of those times.

    Oh. You asked a question. Yes. Let’s see….

    Don’t really have a favorite. Enjoyed The Liar’s Club. Does The Changing Light at Sandover count? And the Anabasis was a good read. Hornby’s done some nice stuff. Others, also. Sebald, even though it’s not, strictly speaking, memoir. And there’s the rub. A good read’s a good read. Doesn’t matter much what category. What’s it with the categories, anyway? It’s marketing, isn’t it? This book is a this, that book is a that, and everybody be sure to color inside the lines. I used to annoy the hell out of my fellow writing students when they would ask me if my stories were true or not. I would tell them, “They’re as true as you want them to be.” That wasn’t the answer they were looking for. Fuck, I write fiction, doesn’t matter how true it is. Whatever hammering of the facts or language necessary to make the damn things work, and change the names to protect my ass (there are no innocents). The only reason I ever wrote something I called a memoir (which I did, it is unpublished and I don’t call it a memoir anymore, it’s mine own and I can call it anything I like) is because memoirs are selling and I want me a piece of that sweet pie. (Oh, Tetman, STFU and go to bed, why don’t you?)

  15. Here’s a picture of one of my memoir bookshelves. One. http://www.shannamahin.com

    Neil Genzlinger. Sigh. People consistently disappoint me.

  16. I’m starting to think my favorite memoir is Betsy. Fuck. I accidentally took some drugs the other day, drugs that make everything really small and my mind really big, and I, in about half an hour, forgot my swear to god I’ll kill myself if I turn on my computer promise to myself because if I do I might end up in an insane asylum and turned on my computer and looked up Betsy Lerner on the internet, I had to go to other sites to remember her name, but Jesus Fucking Christ did I feel much better about myself. God, sometimes I like smart people with a great sense of humor and the fucking guts to keep having, I can only imagine, polite conversations with people that should be pulled by the ears, pinched on the nose, kicked in the nuts, nipple twisted to the point of crying, and still make sense while they are doing it. Fuck! I love it.. I hate it that I can’t do that, but I hate people too much, and I know it, but reading all this sure is fun. Thanks. And when I’m nice to you, some stranger, and you don’t like it, no matter who you are or where you are or what your big dilemma is, and it bothers you because it is no challenge to your idea of the fight you imagine you are in, fuck you, and the tired old horse you’re dragging around with you. And other vacancies. Thanks again. I think this was fun but I can’t function in a linear way right now, I lied about the time earlier, so I hope it was for someone, anyone. I’d put nickles on that.

    • PS. How the fuck do you do it? How do you read through all these pages of people’s lives, and everyone knows deep down in their hearts that their life is so motherfucking important, and I’m not saying that they are not, but how do you read through all of it and not just fucking start hating everybody? how do you not just bang your head on the kitchen table and tell yourself that you don’t give a shit, I hope you and your story disappears into the void, fuck you! How do you do it? The list of books you have had to make readable is daunting, to say the least. Am I just a chicken shit mother fucker that doesn’t want to hear another sad story about how life has not turned out to be a fairytale? How can you look in their eyes and tell them people will want to hear about their life? Jesus Fucking Christ. You must have some fucking guts. Anyway, drugs wearing off, life is good, people are ugly and beautiful all at once, they mean well, they want something. Books. Books. Books. B-O-O-K. What a weird word.

  17. I don’t read memoirs much. I will admit that by the time I finished Angela´s Ashes I thought McCourt was pretty much an idiot with a drinking problem.
    I clicked on your blog to ask what you thought about the NYT piece on memoir, but you beat me to it. .

  18. Not a huge reader of memoir, but I loved Andy Behrman’s ELECTROBOY, JUST KIDS, and yours (not sucking up, I swear). I’ve recently discovered Avi Steinberg’s RUNNING THE BOOKS because we have the same agent, and his writing is great. I’ll read that soon. I like to pretend my novel is really a memoir…it’s so much a part of me, I can’t tell the difference.

  19. Emma Goldman’s LIVING MY LIFE, ANGELA’S ASHES, JUST KIDS, THE GLASS CASTLE.

  20. I’m starting to think most prize-winning memoir writers are poets first. Just finished Lit by Mary Karr, a poet and now must go back and read The Liar’s Club. Patti Smith is a poet. Betsy, a poet. “We write to reclaim a part of our life, but it has to be about the art,” someone once said.

    My favorite quote is from Out of Africa by Isak Diensen. “The cure for anything is saltwater—sweat, tears or the sea.” Sounds like poetry to me.

  21. I loved Just Kids but I also loved Food and Loathing. Because I worked as a psychiatrist in all the places described in the book it was very compelling for me. Trust me when I say that Betsy’s memoir recreates the world of inpatient psychiatry so flawlessly that I could smell the units I’ve worked on while reading it. I’ve only ever gotten that feeling from Wally Lambs’ fiction.

    Clearly my memoir plans are off. Betsy I’m too squishy for nasty.

    B

  22. I love all of Betty McDonald’s books, beginning with The Egg and I, and I also love Jean and Dana Lamb’s Search For the Lost City. I like adventure stories and funny stories. I don’t touch the sob stuff.

    • My god! I thought I was the only person who loved/loves Onions In The Stew – as well as Anybody Can Do Anything, Especially Betty. We’re talking *old.*

  23. I loved Just Kids and The Cracker Queen by Lauretta Hannon. I’m loving Liars’ Club. I’m hoping to love Fat Girl which is next on my growing stack.

  24. No more punk rock. No more graffiti art. No more ice sculptures. No more dark comedies. I’ve seen/heard all of these too much. There are too many. Shut up!

    That said, Naked by David Sedaris.

  25. “Maybe the vignette about the time she and her sister wrote to Amy Carter at the White House would have made a passable subplot in an episode of a mediocre Disney sitcom. ”

    “The rest belongs on a blog.” – SNARKY.

    I read fiction more than memoir these days. I maxed out on incest, abuse ,etc memoirs a long time ago.

    The last three memoirs I read were – Food and Loathing (what’s with the pink cover -that’s new) Just Kids and Lucky by Alice Sebold.

    All very compelling. All good.

  26. Sybille Bedford. Her memoir is Quicksands, but I think her novels were far more memoir, than the memoir. A Compass Error, Legacy, I loved all of them.

  27. I liked The Crowd Sounds Happy by Nicholas Dawidoff, especially the detailed recollections of his early life, the summer scents and the screeching sound of a car going too fast to negotiate the turn near the author’s home…

    I liked Angela’s Ashes, which I read with an Irish accent in my head from somewhere in the first paragraph on.

    I don’t know if Women by Charles Bukowski really fits the category, but I liked it because he said what he felt, no matter how debasing his desires and indulgences. No oinker went through more to score an epiphany.

  28. Love memoirs. Makes a difference to me when I know that real blood and guts were shed and it’s not just make up.

    Loved yours, Betsy. A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas is wonderful. Forever a Sebold fan. Adored Henry Dunow’s. (Still think of kitten ball.)

  29. Thanks for your post! One of my favorites is “Change Me Into Zeus’s Daughter” by Barbara Robinette Moss. The first chapter taught me how vivid and powerful writing can be and I admired and appreciated that so much.

  30. My favorites are BEHOLDEN, where the author is sexually abused by a parent and likes it, and the follow ups, BEQUEST, wherein the author has a kid, with predictable results, and BEREAVED, about the author saying goodbye to the dead parent in the most meaningful way possible.

    And of course my own NINE INCHES, about my obsession with penis enlargement technology.

    Maybe I need Shanna’s agent: http://www.xtranormal.com/watch/7429465/

    • Aww, what’s better than waking up to a namecheck by August?

    • I read that trilogy backwards, so I had no idea what the horse, harness and corpse signified until I read BEHOLDEN and was introduced to the aerobic spandex wearing nun (a force of habit), the vertical bicycle seat and the reason why the protagonist hated Barry White. I still can’t believe the schnauzer got the best of the pit bull in the back alleys of book 2, but loved how Heinrich the schnauzer’s loss of his right eye in the fight and the resulting vision deficiencies left him unable to distinguish between his beloved weiners and long, cylindrical fruits, vegetables and appendages. A modern classic, deeply moving, profound and insightful.

  31. Leah Hager Cohen’s “Without Apology” is a memoir by the end. I also love “The Outermost House” by Henry Beston, “Winter” by Rick Bass, “Fun Home” by Allison Bechdel, and “True Notebooks” by Mark Salzman.

  32. I love memoirs. I often find myself picking up a memoir rather than a novel.

    Here are just a few I’ve liked:

    Glass Castle, Jeannette Walls
    Piano Shop on Left Bank, Thad Carhart
    Identical Strangers, Elyse Schein
    Jesusland, Julia Sheeres
    Chosen by a Horse, Rusan RIchards
    Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs, Alexandra Fuller
    Remembering Smell, Irene Blodgett
    Lucky, Alice Sebold
    Alex and Me, Irene Pepperberg (and all the rest of those “animal and me” books–love ’em)

    We are a huge Neil DeGrasse Tyson fans in my family–I gave my son his memoir a few years back. And Temple Grandin’s books are some of my absolute favorite books. I thought Food and Loathing was beautifully written–not just saying that to suck up…

  33. Hey! The only person who gets to flunk other people for having boring lives is ME, dammit. ME! ME! ME!

    The problem with fiction writers is that they all think they are the gatekeepers of culture. Well, me and my tiara think autobiographical narrative non-fiction is delivering the truth, art, and road map of life that contemporary fiction is not. Except for vampires.

  34. I like memoirs and I’ll read yours, I promise. Recently I read Mira Bartok’s about her crazed mother (Memory Palace) and enjoyed every page. I reviewed it on Amazon. She’s gifted but she owes her mother more than she can ever repay. What better lesson in life than to be raised by a schizophrenic?

  35. I loved Truth & Beauty. I read Autobiography of a Face after that and enjoyed that one very much, as well.

  36. No one is forcing the dude to read them. Sheesh. Don’t like a genre? Then don’t read it. But don’t go bashing it either. As for favorite memoirs, so many of the above have named many memoirs that I love (Karr, Lamott, McCourt, Grealy). I’ll add JoAnn Beard’s BOYS OF MY YOUTH (which is a collection of essays, so maybe that doesn’t count). EAT, PRAY, LOVE. Oh, THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. (Saw the play as well.) A MOVEABLE FEAST by Hemingway. I could go on…I’ll stop now! 🙂

  37. On the one hand, I get it — everybody thinks they need to write a memoir. On the other, shit. Shit, shit, shit — you approach an agent with a memoir and they run for their crucifix and garlic.

  38. This list of memoirs you’ve worked on is stunning and shows that craft is a worthy offering for our bookshelves. As in every other realm of life, the pendulum in reading and publishing swings. A few years ago, memoir was all the rage. The pendulum is swinging back now (bad luck for my current project), but good writing is good writing, and wonderful stories — be they memoir, other nonfiction, or fiction — will always find their readers.

  39. Some memoirs I’ve enjoyed by people with mostly ordinary lives:

    Beg, Borrow, Steal: A Writer’s Life, by Michael Greenberg

    The Boys of My Youth, by Joann Beard

    A Round-Heeled Woman, by Jane Juska

    Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick

    Prozac Nation and More, Now, Again by Elizabeth Wurtzel

    And The Heart Says Whatever, by Emily Gould

  40. I’d like to add to that list:

    The Forest For The Trees, and Food & Loathing.

    BTW, I commented on Genzlinger’s screed on the Times Site:
    http://community.nytimes.com/comments/www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Genzlinger-t.html?permid=7#comment7

  41. Oh, yeah – also everything Ann Lamott (before she got too Jesus-y).

  42. Favorite for now: Speak, Memory (Vladimir Nabokov).

  43. I don’t read’em. Probably won’t begin to. My head’s in made-up worlds and I am comfortable there.

  44. i don’t read much memoir but i’m just finishing up JG Ballard, The Kindness of Women.

    he links his own personal history (interned in Shanghai in WW II) to all the books he wrote over his lifetime and states that fiction is simply a diffuse way of telling one’s own stories. whether he meant to or not, at the time of writing, he later recognizes his personal history in his books.

    ps the bit about the drug experiment is pretty trippy.

  45. memoir is painting before photography
    Fiction is memoir after

  46. This Boy’s Life- Tobias Wolff
    Lit- Mary Karr
    Composed- Roseanne Cash

  47. I read more fiction than memoir, but there are a few that stand out for me. Here are my picks:
    House of Sky by Ivan Doig
    Stop Time by Frank Conroy
    All Over But the Shoutin’ by Rick Bragg

  48. It’s hard for me to separate memoir from bio from personal essay from published diaries from autobiographical fiction—I used to feel like Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground was written about me! So please excuse the eclectic nature of this list.

    Food and Loathing – La Lerner
    Fierce Attachments – Gornick
    Just Kids – Smith
    A Three Dog Life – Thomas
    Running in the Family – Ontdaaje
    The North China Lover – Duras
    Goodbye to All That – Didion’s essay
    Out of Africa – Dinesen
    Naked – Sedaris

    Ontdaaje’s and Duras’ memoirs haunt me. I’d love to write like that.

    Philip Lopate’s anthology of personal essays—I’ve practically memorized it. I love personal essay, especially Annie Dillard. But is there a market for it? Nancy Mairs is great also.

    I hated Angela’s Ashes. I think it became huge because it was so damned easy to read, as memoirs often aren’t.

    Last of all, the woman who changed the course of my life: Anaïs Nin, her diaries and erotica. Or maybe she was waiting for me to find her all along. I don’t think I could get through her stuff without rolling my eyes now, but for me, at the age of seventeen, she packed quite a wallop.

    • I’m up way too late, after a full day of ancient temple-hopping, and I think my post was less than fully coherent. My apologies.

  49. I did love LIt, although am I allowed to say I never read The Liars’ Club? Hilary Mantel’s Giving Up the Ghost has stuck with me — it’s just so *different.* (And she’s an amazing writer). I don’t have bookshelves so have no visual cues to remind me and am thus sure to forget all sorts of favorites . . .but I adored Love by the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter and John Brecher. It had several elements I love: journalists/writers, people finding their talents and growing in their jobs, the couple discovering wine together, and their love story. Also A Thousand Days in Venice by Marlena de Blasi. I’m going to regret closing this comment because in a few seconds I will release which favorites I’ve tarnished by not being able to remember them in time.

  50. I enjoyed the “Times” piece. We are all, increasingly, starring in the movie of our own lives. That’s fine and dandy, but that guy is right: just because you’re alive doesn’t mean you have something extraordinary to recount.

    Heather Havrilesky?

    My favorite memoir, by far, is “My Last Sigh,” by surrealist film director Luis Bunuel. Dodging protests in Paris with Breton, script writing with Dali, spy work during the Spanish Civil War, escaping death at the hands of fascists, arguing with anarchists to spare a restaurant owner’s wine cellar, a veritable walk through early 20th century art and art history.

    • Not everyone wants to read the same book, though, and not everyone wants to escape. For some readers, knowing that another person has had a similar ordinary experience and had extraordinary insight and written about it beautifully could be more than spy work during then Spanish Civil War.

  51. Don’t read many memoirs.

    Alan Bennett’s collection of essays is good, though. It’s called Untold Stories. The bits about his parents resonated (similar to mine, esp. similar to me dad.)

    An A.B. quote: “You do not put yourself into what you write,” he says, marvellously, “you find yourself there.”

  52. My memoir, Disaster Preparedness, the one the Times writer pans (and let’s see, someone just panned without reading)? I challenge you to read the excerpt (linked from the Times article and from Google books) and judge for yourself.

    Love a bunch of the memoirs and essay collections listed here. (My book is technically an essay collection with a strong narrative arc that got reclassified right before publication.) I would add:

    Everybody Into The Pool by Beth Lisick
    One Man’s Meat by EB White
    After Henry by Joan Didion
    Don’t Get Too Comfortable by David Rakoff

    • My condolences. From grade school on, it never feels good to be singled out in front of the class as a bad example.

      As I said above about a different Didion book, I’m glad to hear that yours takes an essayistic approach, which I’m curious about. Will look into it, at least the linked excerpt.

      • I’m a critic myself. If anyone deserves the arbitrary beatdown to set an example, it’s me. I’ve dished it out many, many times before, and I understand reading/viewing with your premise in mind. I appreciate that he took the effort to make the piece entertaining. There have been some seriously fun bits of criticism in the NYT book section lately – Dwight Garner on the 4-Hour Work Week guy? Hysterical – so I’m all for it, generally.

        Obviously publishers and editors bear some responsibility for the glut of crappy memoirs (and crappy novels and crappy anything). It doesn’t really feel just to blame the sweet autobiographical blogger with 1 million hits a month for the fact that her tome was scooped up and then never edited by those anxious to turn those hits into units sold. Publishers would like to sell books, understandably, in a terrible market. But a little editing – and saying no to stuff that’s just not good – could help.

        Also, lumping together all first-person writing by unknown authors as “memoir”? The category is pretty far-reaching. Memoir is just a word that seemed to appeal to people for a while, like “chick lit.” Now maybe they’ll return to using words like “stories” or “essays” or “true tales” and not give the impression that a biography of Theodore Roosevelt and an off-kilter set of essays belong on the same table.

        In this case, it’s so easy to read the excerpt, linked from the left column of the piece. It includes the first 2 chapters of the book. You be the judge. If you read and think it’s bad, by all means, say so. I just didn’t see a clear critique of the book in that piece. No detailed criticisms, no quotes, no nothing. My impression was that he skimmed the book, saw the words “cheerleader” and “divorce,” and smirked and fit it neatly into his (admittedly funny) piece.

      • Very sensible, Heather.

        I did read about two-thirds of your excerpt and admired the easy flow of the writing–nothing forced or strained, no excess weight given to anything. I bookmarked it, because your style may serve as a useful model to me later (which means yes I may buy it).

        I’ve been a critic too, and I think I understand what Genzlinger was doing–writing from a thesis while aiming to entertain, both of which he accomplished. But as you said he ended up being unfair (not your word) in skipping detailed evaluation.

        Re the NYTBR, I particularly enjoyed its recent survey of seven critics on why they do it and what they think they’re doing. (I forget exactly how it was labeled.)

    • I just read some Amazon reviews of your book and it sounds good. I’m guessing many others will check it out. Let’s hope the Times reviewer is wrong about the demise of memoirs as well.

    • Did not pan. Was just wondering who you were. You have my solidarity.

      • No big deal, just didn’t understand your comment. You know, I think we all assume that if someone is a good writer, we would’ve heard of them by now. This is why people (writers, usually) feel empowered to say “Hey all you aspiring writers, stop writing! You don’t have the right to try! You’re flooding the world with crappy books!” And look, I might never have been published if I weren’t a critic for Salon for 7 years.

        But writing, to me, is like talking or exercising or making friends or sleeping. People have every right to try to express themselves (and to succeed at it). Christ, it’s hard to do, too, if you haven’t done it for long, OR if you have. Telling the future Mark Twains and John Updikes and Joann Beards out there to shut the hell up doesn’t sit right with me. And you know who says that sort of thing the most often? Professional writers, who are more insecure than ever these days. Standing behind the gates and bemoaning the rabble outside? Just unsavory elitism, in my book.

      • Ms. H.

        Absolutely. You’re clearly a thinking woman who knew what snakes lurked in the grass when she launched. You chose the journey.

        As the Brits say, “Good on you!”

    • Heather, have not read your book yet, but will look for it when I return stateside. In response to your comments about the (lack of) editing and (over) marketing of personal writing, I want to say that I think at least half the problem lies with the reader. It used to be that even relatively uneducated people enjoyed good literature, and had the discipline and desire to understand and appreciate it. But consumption of schlock art drives out the capacity to imbibe the real deal. If you’re stuffed full of junk food, not only do you lose your appetite for healthy nourishment, you eventually become ever more addicted to empty calories.

  53. “It’s a cookbook!”

  54. Sane again, for the most part. Stuck again, obviously, But I noticed Angela’s Ashes was mentioned a few times in this post. The thing I didn’t get from that book, which I read straight through, was Angela’s perspective. I’m sure she would say, and I’m sure the guy that wrote that, I don’t know how to spell his name, would tell you she would say It’s none of your God damned business, but that is the story I wanted. So, why wouldn’t she tell her story? I say guilt. So, people, we must get rid of guilt. Sorry, religions, but you suck. Guilt is shit, and it creates shit. But at the same time some folks make a shit load of money from it. Go figure. I’m so sick from writing. I’m going to go back to torturing my cat. Now, that’s fun. He bites. Yeah!

  55. I love memoirs, and I’ll read anything honest with a voice. I’m reading My Life in 24 Yoga Poses right now. Is it a classic of the genre? Probably not, but I relate, I I can hear her, I get her and I like to get people.

    When I was quarantined in China, Heather Armstrong and Ayelet Waldman saved my life, just by getting me out of my fucked-up, terrified head and into theirs.

    • I should have added, and that writer was just mean. There was very little more to his piece than that. I’m always a little surprised by that kind of pettiness, but I know I shouldn’t be.

  56. Genzlinger’s final point was well taken: a good memoir is a journey of discovery, a quest, for both the writer and reader. Contra G., one needn’t have been born with three arms to be an interesting memoir writer/subject.

    My list:
    The Black Notebooks (Toi Dericotte); The Florist’s Daughter (Patricia Hampl); Autobiography of a Face (Lucy Grealy); One More Thing About Happiness (Paul Guest); Heaven’s Coast (Mark Doty); A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius (Dave Eggers).

  57. I didn’t think the NYT piece was all that awful…but the point he makes about memoir could be made about many genres of books. At the moment I am reading “Let’s Take the Long Way Home” by Gail Caldwell. Others I have enjoyed include “The Year of Magical Thinking” by Joan Didion (play here sold out before I could get a ticket…sigh!) and The Mother Zone by Marni Jackson. Angela’s Ashes didn’t wow me …didn’t like it enough to pick up ‘Tis. I am not a memoir devotee but quite simply good writing and a good story, lived or imagined, make a good book.

  58. One more: An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination (Elizabeth McCracken).

  59. Nobody asked, but I’ll tell you why I didn’t like Angela’s Ashes. If I recall correctly, it was told in the voice of a child. No, not even the voice of a child, but through the eyes of a child. Having a voice implies a hard-earned identity; he was just a kid that shit happened to. No reflection from a mature perspective. The experience wasn’t digested, just regurgitated. Was I supposed to see through his eyes and identify with him? I don’t just want to know what a person goes through, I want to know what meaning he or she has made from the experience. Tell me what you got out of it all.

    p.s. Everyone who contributed their favorites here has just given me a great selection from which to compile my summer reading list. Thanks!

  60. […] (thank you for those suggestions, Lisa G).  What’s with all the nay-saying about memoir?  (Thank you, Betsy, for your defense — you have a hell of a sold-list).  Over at Dystel & Goderich, Stacey says she’s […]

  61. Great post…thank you Betsy

  62. A favorite not already mentioned here is Darkroom by Jill Christman.

    And Heather, hang in there!

  63. Loved many already mentioned. Also, An Unquiet Mind
    by Kay Redfield Jamison. Just finished my own memoir, and though I don’t have a publisher yet, I quaked at that review. Empty snark is just so in vogue these days. Your response was perfect, Betsy. Heather had a good response too on her own blog. If only you’d both lend me some of that good strong ego!

  64. As a yet-to-be-published memoir writer (join the pack, I know!), the New York Times article is depressing – and yet I don’t begrudge the writer his views. There are plenty of boring memoirs out there, but of course what is boring is in the eye of the beholder.

    I was not an Eat, Pray, Love fan, but there are so many other memoirs that I read that I could not put down. Great memoirs are as thrilling as wonderful novels.

    I have loved so many memoirs that I could not possibly name a favorite. Of recent note, I liked Dani Shapiro’s Devotion for its simple narrative arc and graceful writing. Marcie Herman’s Speak to Me was elegant for the way it portrayed grief.

    I hope your post and the New York Times article both persuade memoir writers to keep plugging away and to keep pushing the envelope to improve the genre – and add to it. Even fiction writers write about their selves. The trick is, how well do any of us write about ourselves and how do we make our story of any interest to someone else? What is universal and yet also fascinating about the story we have to tell?

  65. People! Go buy and read and enjoy the art of Alison Bechdel’s FUN HOME. Am I really the first one to mention that in this comment string?

    Genzlinger can go fuck himself. I’m with Heather H. Elitism all the way. Stop writing people! Stop Writing! I said stop writing people! That’s my job! It’s my job damn it! Mine!

  66. And a shout out to your memoir, Food and Loathing. You had me laughing out loud and pausing sadly. Thanks for writing it.

  67. […] when you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Shut it.” — Betsy Lerner, author, literary agent and former […]

  68. I am writing down all the good suggestions that I have read here! But I’m surprised no one has mentioned anything by Caroline Knapp. I read Drinking: A Love Story and Appetites and both were deeply absorbing, moving, haunting reflections.

  69. Zo:

    You must be my age to remember Betty McDonald’s The Egg And I, and Onions In The Stew, the latter about her life on Vashon Island, Washington, where I also lived as a kid in the mid 1950s, as did Betty’s sister, Mary Bard (Jensen).

    Ms. Jensen was also a writer and author of a 1940s best-seller, “The Doctor Wears Three Faces,” about her marriage to a Seattle MD, which was made into a movie in 1950, “My Mother Didn’t Tell Me,” with William Lundigan and Dorothy McGuire. She lived on Vashon Island too, and was a pal of my mom’s. Betty and Mary’s brother, Cleve Bard, owned a construction company on the island as well.

    If you’re interested, here’s a site about her.
    http://marybardjensen.com/.

    Good lord, I’m getting dotty and anecdotal, just as the Estimable Heather noted as being a symptom of advancing age.

    Worse yet, I’m writing a memoir. Jesus.

  70. It’s not nasty. Gently, humourously, cruel perhaps, but hey, maybe he’s right. The quotes he gave were bad writing at sentence level so probably bad writing at memoir level. I enjoyed the piece.

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