And yet: Let’s say you read a lack-luster novel—let’s say you have the bad luck to read three in a row; are you going to turn around and knock the whole genre? No way, unless you’re David Shields, and (somewhat facetiously) you’ve already decided that fiction is dead.
So why is it when a critic pans a memoir, or even—as with Lorrie Moore in The New York Review of Books, when she praises one (two, actually, and this was some trick, stay tuned)—that memoir-the-genre takes the rap?
I’ll get to Lorrie Moore in a minute, but first let me posit a theory; let me insist that good writers abound (not-so-good writers, too) in every genre. But regardless of talent and skill, poets and novelists are generally interested in poems-and-stories-plural: They want to write for its own sake. This ought to be true of memoirists as well—I’d like to believe it is true, most of the time. But it can’t be denied that there are people who come to the genre not because they’re devoted to language and literature, but because, in life, they have triumphed or survived in a way that they think is worth waxing on about; they want to testify: they have a single story to tell.
However, this was not true of the authors Genzlinger reviewed at the beginning of this year, and regardless of the success or failure of their books, this is where the critic went wrong. It was as disrespectful to lump their individual efforts together as typical or endemic, as it was unfair to condemn memoirists everywhere, just because, in his estimation, three writers had failed. But at least Neil Genzlinger’s criticism was straightforward. At least it had something to do with the actual demands of the genre. Though I cringed as I read—and second-guessed my own work—I knew where he stood. Lorrie Moore, on the other hand, is more slippery in her essay;
she pretends to be solicitous, pretends to write with admiration about two new books—each penned by a poet (Jill Bialosky and Meghan O’Rourke), each an investigation of grief and loss—then undermines both writers with the assertion that their stories would have made better fiction than non: Each real-life (now dead) subject, she concludes, was shortchanged by the form. Her review, therefore, praise notwithstanding, turns out to be condescending, and, if you ask me, only indicates her misapprehension of the genre. These “engaging subjects,” she argues, are “deserving of the deep imagining, revealing design, and solid construction of heroines in good prose fiction, but real life is messy and sometimes gracelessly crowds out an enduring story…”
No. No, no, no. Or—that is, yes, I agree, “real life is messy” (that is the “enduring story”) and I’m certain, by the way, that fiction is obliged to get at how that’s so. As far as memoir goes, Lorrie Moore is simply off-track. Memoir is not biography or autobiography, real or imaginary. Moreover, memoir is, every time, at least as much about the narrator as it is about her subject. The writer is the subject, in fact—so it’s not her job to fully imagine, construct, or design, but rather to reveal (creatively, yes, this goes to the prose itself) the mysterious (and messy) truth of her experience (in conjunction with fact-finding, sure) as it informs the way she thinks and feels. Whether or not the ostensible subjects of either of these books might inspire good fiction (absolutely, why not, another project for another day) is entirely beside the point. Furthermore, in the guise of equivocal appreciation, Lorrie Moore has disparaged not just the work of two writers but the form itself, apparently without understanding its singular constraints and rewards.
So it’s true then, coming full circle, that it’s easier to bash the memoirist than the novelist: She can’t hide behind a character; she’s obliged to own not just the story she’s telling, but the way she tells it. All the more reason (back to the Genzlinger piece), regardless of the content—and perhaps contrary to what we writers, readers, agents, publishers, and editors might have thought—for her to tell the story well. And if she does—if she takes care to get it right from the sentence level up—there’s every chance she will surprise herself and her reader, besides. This goes for fiction writers, too, of course. If the writing is strong, call it fiction, and the reader will applaud the writer’s insight and talent. Call it memoir, though, and no matter how skilled, the writer had better be telling the truth; if she isn’t, come to find out her insight isn’t worth a damn. That is, damned if she does, damned if she doesn’t… Hey, nonfiction is hard.
But say, I recently read a gorgeous collection of personal essays coming soon from Coffee House Press: Half in Shade, by Judith Kitchen, who has written and published in all genres. As with many true stories (fiction and non), the book is funny, delightful, whimsical, mysterious, and also sad—and in the course of the narrative, the author asks, rhetorically, of writing nonfiction (of saying, as best she can, what it means to her personally to be human and mortal): “How dare I make something beautiful?” But to make something beautiful is not just our writerly privilege–it’s our responsibility, too. And the question for writers, no matter the genre, has to be, “How dare we not?”