A brief history of memoir-bashing.

The stories we tell about ourselves.
March 30 2007 5:43 PM

A Brief History of Memoir-Bashing

It's almost as old as the memoir itself.

Click here to read more from Slate's Memoir Week.

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Not only did the number of books increase, but their focus changed—from the outer life to the inner. In 1956, V.S. Pritchett correctly ascribed the "tremendous expansion in autobiographical writing," in part, to the "dominant influence of psychological theory." He hadn't seen nothing. Through the '50s and '60s, the volume of autobiography production grew steadily, though it was still understood that the great majority of them would be written by secretaries of state, movie stars, quarterbacks, business leaders, and other eminences. But then the form opened up, just as Howells and Stephen had hoped. One noteworthy development was that such writers as Frank Conroy, Maya Angelou, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Joyce Maynard kicked off, rather than concluded, their careers with memoirs. (Paul Fussell noted in 1970, "Twenty years ago, Frank Conroy's Stop-Time would have been costumed as a first novel. Today it appears openly as a memoir.") Brothers Geoffrey and Tobias Wolff's memoirs were not their debut books, but both attracted notice and strong notices, and in their subject matter—Geoffrey's The Duke of Deception revolved around their con-man father, Tobias' This Boy's Life their abusive stepfather—paved the way for the next big trend, the hard-luck memoir.

In 1994, after the trend had started accelerating but before it went into the warp speed at which it even now varooms, critic William Gass wrote the classic anti-memoir screed in Harper's. He had a few choice words for celebrity autobiographers—"celluloid whores and boorish noisemakers whose tabloid lives are presented for our titillation by ghosts still undeservedly alive." But he saved the bulk of his scorn for the genre itself:

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Are there any motives for the enterprise that aren't tainted with conceit or a desire for revenge or a wish for justification? To halo a sinner's head? To puff an ego already inflated past safety? … To have written an autobiography is already to have made yourself a monster … Why is it so exciting to say, now that everyone knows it anyway, 'I was born … I was born … I was born'? 'I pooped in my pants, I was betrayed, I made straight A's.'

The years since this was published have seen the test of Howells' notion: that there is an intrinsic value to an "obscure or humble" person writing a totally frank account of his or her  life. What Howells could not have foreseen was how often—whether it was Kathryn Harrison and her father; or Joyce Maynard and her old, weird boyfriend (in her second memoir); or Elizabeth Wurtzel and her drugs; Michael Ryan and his dog; Augusten Burroughs and his foster family; or James Frey and his variegated mishegas—the humbling would have come by means of mental illness, substances, or abuse. So, in addition to echoing Gass on memoirists' mean, narcissistic motives, critics have ripped them for unseemliness and betrayal.

Thus James Atlas in 1996: "Why this pull toward the anatomy of self? In part, it reflects a phenomenon pervasive in our culture—people confessing in public to an audience of voyeurs. In an era when 'Oprah' reigns supreme and 12-step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept."

Thus Daphne Merkin in 1998: "Ours is a culture addicted to exposure, to 'outing' ourselves and others."

And thus Michiko Kakutani, in the midst of last year's great Frey dust-up: The "memoir of crisis" is a "genre that has produced a handful of genuinely moving accounts of people struggling with illness and personal disaster but many more ridiculously exhibitionistic monologues that like to use the word 'survivor' (a word once reserved for individuals who had lived through wars or famines or the Holocaust) to describe people coping with weight problems or bad credit."

The points are made and remade, and yet the memoirs keep coming. They seem to satisfy a need, in readers as well as writers. Maybe the admirable Benvenuto Cellini had it right. Let a billion memoirs bloom!

Ben Yagoda is author of About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made and the just-published How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them. He is a professor of English and journalism at the University of Delaware.