Reviewing the Review: November 22 2009

Ben Yagoda, author of a new book called Memoir: A History, recently caused a splash by declaring that fiction has been replaced by memoir as the most important literary form, that “when it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is done”.

It’s ridiculous, of course, to suggest that fiction is “done”. But I do share Yagoda’s enthusiasm for the memoir format. A good memoir is a structured argument, a confessional, a reckoning and a coming-to-terms. I can’t even begin to list the countless great memoirs that have enriched me, though the first few that randomly leap to my mind are Emmett Grogan’s Ringolevio, Katharine Graham’s Personal History, Johnny Rotten’s No Irish No Blacks No Dogs, Michael Korda’s Another Life, Davey Johnson’s Bats, Kieth Hernandez’s If At First, Bob Dylan’s imaginative Chronicles, Augusten Burroughs’ Running With Scissors, Primo Levi’s If This Is A Man, Linus Torvalds’s Just For Fun, Andre Schiffrin’s The Business of Books, Philip Roth’s The Facts, Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Words, Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road, Meredith Willson’s But He Doesn’t Know The Territory, Gandhi’s Autobiography, Chuck Berry’s Autobiography, J. M. Coetzee’s Youth, Marlon Brando’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, Patty Hearst’s Every Secret Thing, Dee Dee Ramone’s Poison Heart, Theodore White’s In Search of History and the many Watergate memoirs I once greatly enjoyed reading in tandem. Looking back at this weirdly varied list, it occurs to me that I don’t need better literature, better inspiration or better life lessons than these types of books can provide.

Of course fiction is not dead, but the memoir is an awesome format. I wish Judith Shulevitz’s review of Ben Yagoda’s book in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review had a little more “oomph” to it, though, and I wish she didn’t focus so much on the rather boring question of truth in memoir. This topic has made the news a lot in recent years — yeah yeah, James Frey, whatever — and Shulevitz almost makes the question interesting by focusing on Yagoda’s point that Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was a faked memoir (though this point has already been emphasized by J. M. Coetzee and is therefore rather old news). I wish the article focused more on memoir as literature and personal philosophy, and I wonder if Yagoda’s book points out that both Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and Henry David Thoreau’s Walden are memoirs.

I’m surprised to see that Yagoda considers the words “memoir” and “autobiography” interchangeable. They certainly are not: an autobiography should be an account of an entire life, while a memoir can feature either an entire life or any meaningful segment of one, and can emphasize something other than the life story itself as its central motif (Thoreau’s Walden was a memoir, but it was not an autobiography).

Fittingly, this article appears along with several memoir reviews in the current publication. NYTBR chief Sam Tanenhaus assigns himself to cover Andre Agassi’s Open: An Autobiography and produces a rather thrilling summary that includes the surprising news that Agassi deeply resents being forced into stardom by an overbearing father and that he “loathed the game” his entire life. I watched Agassi play often and never saw this on his face. It’s less surprising, but fairly amusing, to learn how badly his marriage to Brooke Shields worked out. Yeah, I guess I’ll have another memoir to read. And, having handled this review very well, I hope Sam “Conservativism Is Dead” Tanenhaus will now tackle the just-released memoir that’s likely to show up as the #1 bestseller next week, Going Rogue by Sarah Palin. That’s a matchup I’d love to see.

Stephen King’s piece on Carol Sklenicka’s Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life is on the cover of this Book Review, though King focuses too much on the question of Gordon Lish’s involvement in Carver’s career, a topic already as overplayed as the question of truth in memoir. Just once, I’d like to read an article about Raymond Carver that doesn’t talk about Gordon Lish.

Since fiction is not yet actually dead, today’s Review also features Brenda Wineapple on a historical novel, Devil’s Dream by Madison Smartt Bell, who must have thought there weren’t already enough books about the American Civil War.

At least Will Self has a more original concept for his new novel, Liver: A Fictional Organ With a Surface Anatomy of Four Lobes, which Geoff Nicholson seems to like. This book contains four stories about human livers. I suspect I’ll never read it, but I’m pretty amused that it exists.

4 Responses

  1. Cheers to your point that you
    Cheers to your point that you never seem to hear about Carver without hearing about Lish anymore.

    I think my favorite memoir is Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, in which he recounts meeting his dad for the first time while working at a homeless shelter in Boston as a teenager. Terrific grip on the memoir form from one of our best contemporary poets. Ezra Pound’s Gaudier-Brzeska is great also.

  2. I’ll add my vote for Suck
    I’ll add my vote for Suck City – well worth reading.

    A friend of mine was a long-time friend of Ray Carver’s — he says that the biographer really got it right, warts and all, and recommends the book.

  3. According to your definition,
    According to your definition, autobiography should be impossible, as no one can write his own death.

    Also, your definition means that Gandhi’s “Autobiography” is mistitled, since it ends just before Indian independence, and does not include his final years.

  4. I don’t know, Muzzy …
    I don’t know, Muzzy … “autobiography” indicates a book that aims to describe the author’s complete life up to the time of its writing, whereas “memoir” does not necessarily indicate this. I see what you’re saying, but I am sure the words still manage to be meaningful and distinct despite this.

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