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
Published in October 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
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?