Defending Memoir, or, The Problem with Taylor

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Taylor Antrim, author of The Headmaster Ritual, takes easy shots at memoir zeroing in on Nick Flynn’s The Ticking Is The Bomb and Alex Lemon’s Happy.

I should say up front that Nick Flynn and I have become friends in recent years, after I championed his first memoir (it’s easy to like someone who loves your writing). And that I also wrote a memoir, so of course I’m biased. If I didn’t think memoir was a legitimate art form I wouldn’t have written one.

Antrim doesn’t think of memoir as a legitimate art form. Here’s the money quote from Antrim: “Memoir writing is cheating.”

And here’s another:

So, what’s with all the memoirs? Are they somehow… easier? Is the storytelling bar set lower? Too often, memoir seems to me an excuse to be fragmentary, incomplete, narratively non-rigorous.

Antrim feels the memoir has less value than the novel. He thinks memoirs are easy. Left out of his commentary is a discussion of the reader. Why would a reader care if a book is easy or difficult to write? Or if the author cheated? Of course there are many bad memoirs, and probably as many bad novels. It’s easy (speaking of easy) to find one you don’t like and use it as a cudgel against a genre. A great memoir has to hold up to the higher standards we hold novels to, a point I made in my review of Nick Flynn’s first memoir, Another Bullshit Night In Suck City.

Antrim doesn’t like Nick’s new memoir, and that’s relevant criticism if written well and explored. But what makes Antrim’s criticism irrelevant is that rather than criticizing the book he criticizes the form. He doesn’t like these new works because they are memoirs.

But what about This Boy’s Life, or any of Joan Didion’s personal work? What about Edmund White? I disagree with Antrim’s assessment of The Ticking Is The Bomb, but that’s not the problem. The problem is Antrim’s dismissal of memoir in general.

There is only one rule in writing a memoir, but it’s an important one: You can’t intentionally lie. This one rule has the effect of form on poetry, setting up a challenge that often forces creativity and makes the work more powerful than free verse.

Antrim writes:

Flynn’s book is maddeningly free-form, pointillist, a childhood memory here, a Buddhist revelation there. We all have a darkness inside us; we’re all bewildered citizens of the world.

Rather than calling this a failed memoir (which it isn’t, in my opinion, I loved the book, which reads as a series of images building on one another, leaving the reader with a feeling of revelation, the book is an experience) he makes the case that the flaws he perceives arise because the book is a memoir. In fact there are many novels that could be criticized in a similar vein.

Antrim champions the author-protagonist novel, books such as The Bell Jar. It would be more interesting if he acknowledged how those books have also been attacked by critics making claims similar to Antrim’s, that they are indulgent, or easy. Jonathan Lethem used to be proud that he made up every doorknob, every brick in every building. And then he wrote Fortress of Solitude, his finest work.

Journalism is hard, underpaid work, and attacking memoir is low hanging fruit, especially when it’s so tied to the celebrity memoir and the platform writer, the worst impulses of the publishing industry. The Daily Beast has a history with this topic, here they talk about Michael Chabon and Sarah Palin as if they were part of the same literary movement (though they liked my memoir, thank you Daily Beast!).

Antrim is likely to get a lot of clicks on his provocative piece. A lot of those clicks will be people who agree with him, people who have similar preferences and would like to believe that their preferences for one kind of art are superior to someone else’s preferences for another.


Stephen Elliott is the author of seven books, including the memoir The Adderall Diaries and the novel Happy Baby. He is the founding editor of The Rumpus. His feature film debut, About Cherry, was distributed by IFC. His second movie, based on his novel Happy Baby, is forthcoming. More from this author →