writing-the-story-of-your-life

The Problem with the Problem with Memoir

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I got an email from a friend yesterday asking me if I’d seen this article on Gawker, Journalism Is Not Narcissism, by Hamilton Nolan. I hadn’t but I was aware of the argument. It’s an easy one to make, that memoir and personal essay are killing journalism.

I’m not sure why this one stuck with me, maybe because I hadn’t read one of these screeds in a while. It reminded me of Taylor Antrim’s cheap essay on the Daily Beast about why some memoirs are better as novels.

Hamilton talks about writers struggling to be read and editors using personal essays as link bait. At last count his essay had 40,737 hits and 182 comments. Blog posts attacking memoir also make for good link bait.

In his piece Hamilton says that most people’s lives are not that interesting. In other words, your life is not interesting enough for a memoir. I would dispute that. Most people’s lives are very interesting but most people don’t look at their lives in an interesting way. The unexamined life is never interesting. If a good memoir was merely predicated on having an interesting life then some of the best books would be celebrity memoirs. These people live a life most of us know nothing about. But celebrity memoirs are rarely interesting, despite how interesting their lives appear from the outside. The problem is not that they don’t live interesting lives, it’s that they’re not writers.

It’s easy to point to bad memoirs and use them to attack the entire form but the form is never the problem. When you attack personal writing you attack Jack Kerouac, Ernest Hemingway, and Sylvia Plath. In truth most books are bad and most publishers are risk averse. Many bookstores are going out of business. The changing media landscape has made it harder for journalists to make a living. But that’s not a problem with memoir.

Hamilton says that we are raising a generation of robotic insta-memoirists. He calls this journalism as narcissism. He says when you write about yourself you will soon be all used up and then you’ll start writing bad books. But that happens to everyone, not just memoirists. We get older, we lose some of the heat we had for certain stories. If we’re unable to move on to other fires it’s true that our writing will become cold. So many writers never live up to the promise of their first couple of books. Someone said when we’re younger all we care about is fame and access and when we’re older all we care about is money. What that person meant was that our values change and it impacts our ability to write. David Foster Wallace talked about this, the difficulty of accepting praise for something you’ve already written, knowing you might never write something that good again.

But what about Joan Didion, or Tobias Wolff? There are certainly authors who write many memoirs or novels where the protagonist is a stand-in for the author. Only truly great writers can pull it off, but how many people even write one great book?

As for the larger argument, the argument that isn’t actually argued, but rather stated as if we all accepted it as fact, memoir does not actually equal narcissism. If you know journalists then you know there are many among them you would consider narcissists. And if you know memoirists, especially the really good ones, you know they are more curious than most about the world around them. I’m thinking of the few who I know well, Dave Eggers, Tobias Wolff, Cheryl Strayed, Nick Flynn. These are all amazing listeners. They inhale their surroundings.

Of course, that’s a pretty high standard, but isn’t that the standard we’re aspiring to? I’m sure there are many memoirs written by narcissists, but I doubt they’re very good. Even looking over my own work, my own daily emails, the worst ones are generally written when I’m too far down a hole to connect my life to the larger world.

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originally published in The Daily Rumpus.


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 →