Once authors used to write fiction. Now they are laying bare their intimate selves. Louise Kehoe, who has just written a book about her childhood, looks at the appeal of painfully revealing memoirsby Louise Kehoe / October 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
On both sides of the Atlantic, memoir, long considered fiction’s poor relation, is suddenly the genre of the moment. Everywhere you look there’s memoir. Of course there is nothing new in writers mining their own experience as raw material for their work. What is new, though, is the open admission-the boast, even-that such work is autobiographical.
Never, it seems, has the venerable injunction to write what you know been taken so literally, by so many. Bookshops are devoting whole sections to memoir-it is selling, after all, and briskly-and while once those shelves might have contained little but the gin-tinged reminiscences of harrumphing ex-generals and former politicians, now browsers will encounter a far more eclectic mix: male and female, old and young, seasoned authors rubbing shoulders with fresh-faced neophytes. What is going on? Why are so many writers abandoning the third person, discarding the figleaf of fiction, exposing their miserable childhoods, their failed marriages, their sordid addictions for all the world to see?
Inevitably, there will be those literary chauvinists who will see the phenomenon as just another American-spawned excess, more poisonous effluent discharged on the far side of the Atlantic and now slopping up menacingly on British shores. To be sure, some of the bellwethers of the movement were indeed American: William Styron, one of the earliest, whose brief memoir Darkness Visible chronicled his battle with suicidal depression; or Philip Roth, whose Patrimony so vividly evoked the anguish of watching a parent decline and die. Both became bestsellers. Others soon followed: Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted-again, an account of the author’s experience of mental illness -and, more recently, The Liar’s Club, Mary Karr’s riveting account of her disastrous childhood in east Texas. But none of these could be classified as vulgar or unseemly. If anything, these were paragons of grace and restraint compared to certain later ones. Michael Ryan’s Secret Life, an unsparingly graphic account of the author’s so-called sex addiction, was a memorably ugly landmark of the exhibitionist tendency, a tendency to which even the great and the good have, on occasion, succumbed. Was it really necessary, for example, for John Updike (Self Consciousness) to tell us that he had a furtive sexual encounter in the back seat of a car with another woman even as his wife sat, trusting and blithely unaware, in the front?
Nevertheless, although the memoir boom began in the US, Americans do not have a monopoly on excess and tastelessness. And there is plenty of scepticism about the genre in the US: plenty of withering indictments of the narcissism of autobiography; plenty of handwringing over the purported death of the novel. Even so, it is probably fair to say that self-analysis and self-disclosure are more widely accepted in the US than in Britain. But that only makes the recent popularity of the genre in Britain-for example, Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father?-all the more remarkable. Clearly, something other than mere cultural attitude is responsible for the trend; something having to do with the issue of identity, the search for who we are and how we came to be who we are.
Why is it happening now? Recent social upheaval has got a lot to do with it. We are more isolated from one another than we have ever been: the family is more fragile and the journey to adulthood has become a lonelier one, with fewer landmarks to guide us. We are living through the bloodiest century in history, a century convulsed by war and genocide. Whether we ourselves witnessed and were directly affected by these events, history has bruised and buffeted many of us as never before. Families are immensely vulnerable to these forces: sadness, anger and guilt can pass from one generation to the next as silently and insidiously as a mutant gene, and children, long after they have fledged and flown, can find themselves still wrestling with the preoccupations of their parents.
In the middle of all this stands modern psychiatry, confidently asserting that the brain is simply a machine, the soul a cocktail of neurotransmitters and the spirit the sum of its synapses. Are we really to believe that anger, jealousy and grief are merely aberrant biochemical phenomena, abnormal phosphorescences in some distant hypothalamic circuit? Then what is love? An excess of 5-hydroxytryptamine? And what am I? Chopped liver?
No wonder we are flocking to read memoirs. Mechanistic explanations do not answer the real questions of the self; memoir, with its clear, insistent voice, its “I” that means “I,” does. Memoir speaks of a self that transcends chemistry, an indestructible core of the human psyche that may sometimes get waylaid, but is never truly lost.
Not that novels cannot successfully tackle these questions. On the contrary; many a wonderful novel has been written around the themes of self and identity, of family life, its vicissitudes and sometimes florid pathologies. But the reaction of the reader is different from that elicited by a memoir. A novel, even a very good one, requires of the reader a suspension of disbelief; even though the imagination, the intellect and the emotions may be powerfully affected, there cannot be the same sense of direct involvement with the actual experience of another which a good memoir can provide.
But there’s the rub: there are memoirs and memoirs. What makes one memoir good and another an excruciating embarrassment? It is all down to form and content.
First, content. To write a good memoir, the author must be prepared to abandon his grievances, forgo the sometimes overwhelming urge to settle scores, fight the inclination to paint himself in saintly and glowing colours (it is a memoir, not an apologia), and resist at all costs the temptation to preach. He must try never to raise his voice: polemic is the kiss of death to good memoir, just as surely as it is to the novel. All of which is a tall order, but by no means an impossible one.
Then there is the question of form. For a memoir to succeed, it must borrow heavily from the novelist’s armamentarium, paying careful attention to character, plot and narrative pace. It is not enough that the story is true: it has to be told engagingly. As VS Pritchett put it: “It’s all in the art; you get no credit for living.” But is not the very introduction of narrative artifice into what has announced itself as a true story a breach of faith with the reader? No: not if the narrative embellishments and curlicues, the truncations, detours and omissions are employed honestly, in the service of the central truth of the story. So employed, they can only serve to enhance the reader’s access to the writer’s experience. Memoir, after all, is not biography; neither is it history; it is all to do with revelation and epiphany, and if the memoirist has done his job properly the reader will accept the use of a little licence.
Will the memoir boom last? It is hard to say. Probably some of the current crop will endure; some may even become classics. Literary success is impossible to predict. Nevertheless, it is fair to hazard a guess that those which do achieve lasting affection among the readership will be the ones without a cause to campaign for or a score to settle. The rest will probably disappear without trace, much as most novels do.
Look at it this way: there is a memoir out there that has outsold any other book in publishing history. It has not been out of print in-literally-hundreds of years. It has been translated into every language known to mankind, from Inuit to Tagalog and points in between. It is available in almost every bookshop in the western hemisphere and it has never, ever been remaindered.
It is a great memoir by any standards, the story of a man who was born humble and died young, but who in his short life turned out to be a mesmerising orator, whose influence, amazingly, can still be felt today, almost 2,000 years after his death. The book is a collaborative effort between four major authors and a smattering of minor ones, and of course, wherever you get two or more people reminiscing about the same events their versions will always differ, sometimes wildly. That is the nature of memory: one witness says this, the other says that. But on one thing they all agree: the central character of the memoir, the man who emerges from the page with such colour and clarity, was tried by a kangaroo court, found guilty and executed as a common criminal. Powerful stuff. Odd choice of title, though, The New Testament. n
With grateful thanks to Mark Stafford, Penguin Books USA