Too Much Information
Last week, an article called “The Problem with Memoirs” appeared in The New York Times. In it, Neil Genzlinger argues that in this “age of oversharing” readers are being subjected to a deluge of poorly-written, narcissistic, navel-gazing books packaged as memoir. While that’s perhaps true in some instances, Genzlinger goes a step too far, suggesting that “Memoirs have been disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child or been an underprivileged child. By anyone who was raised in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s, not to mention the ’50s, ’40s or ’30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job.” He is saying that we’ve all had interesting human experiences, but that doesn’t mean we should write a book about it.
I disagree. Some of the most popular tv shows focus on “real” people, often doing mundane things like drinking at a bar or going grocery shopping. Nearly all of the most popular style blogs are just pictures of regular women, with a line or two about their outfits, and five paragraphs about what they ate for dinner and how much they love their husbands. Clearly, we, as people, are interested in other people’s ordinary experiences. It’s a type of voyeurism, a way to empathize and feel like we’re not alone in our thousands of neuroses and quirks, likes and dislikes.
Many of my favorite books are memoirs. Truth & Beauty by Ann Patchett tells the story of her friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealey; Love is a Mix Tape is Rob Sheffield’s love letter to his wife and the music that defined their courtship and marriage; Just Kids is Patti Smith’s chronicles of her young adulthood spent in New York City with friend and lover Robert Mappelthorpe; and The Liar’s Club is the retelling of writer Mary Karr’s wild childhood in Texas. All of these books were written by seasoned writers, yes, but I don’t think it invalidates my point that I don’t think a memoir needs to tell a particularly dramatic story to make it good–the story just needs to be told in such a way that we care. The story’s in the telling, as it were.
What do you think? Do you need some action, a well-known name, or tragic event to make you want to read a memoir? What are some of your favorites?
*Image via The New York Times