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Too Much Information

2011 February 1
by Jill

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

9 Responses Post a comment
  1. February 1, 2011

    I happen to really like Memoirs and agree with you, in this age we seem to be riveted by the ‘normal’ or not-so- lives of those around us. It opens us up to the human existence and makes us feel less like strangers in a big world. I am currently reading ‘Lit’ by Mary Karr. I really like it.

  2. February 1, 2011

    Yes, yes, and yes. That list of things Genzlinger spouted off makes it sound like every one of those things isn’t worthy of being written about, which is untrue, and in my opinion, just offensive. Writing is therapeutic both for the writer and for the reader: if something is written well, and it works for somebody, and has made somebody’s life better, well then, you can suck it, New York Times.

    I also agree with you about people writing about ‘normal’ everyday lives. Those narratives, when written well, can really be the most engaging, honest, and touching.

    I sadly haven’t read most of your favorite memoirs (although Love is a Mix Tape sounds awesome), but I LOVE The Liar’s Club. She is amazing.

  3. February 1, 2011

    Also, I just want to note that this blog entry by Jill has so far been commented on by two other Jills. Whoa.

  4. February 2, 2011

    I agree – I love well-written memoirs. I think a lot of times memoirs can be just as interesting as fiction, if not more so because they are real stories.

    Your point about our culture’s fascination with Reality TV is a great one. Just like at the Real Housewives ratings!

    I’ll have to add a few of the memoirs you suggested to my list. Last year, I read Come Back by Mia and Claire Fontaine and it was amazingly honest and real. I also read Summer at Tiffany – a charming story about the first female page ever to work at Tiffany and Co. in Manhattan.

  5. February 2, 2011

    I also agree with your stance on this issue. Lately I’ve been reading lots of memoirs, and I find them just as interesting, if not more so, than any works of fiction. People’s varying life experiences are worth writing about, no matter how mundane another person thinks that life is. For every one person that can’t relate, I’d bet there are 100 more that can, and that’s what’s so special about memoirs.

    Some of my favorite memoirs so far would have to be:
    The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
    Target Underwear and a Vera Wang Gown by Adena Halpern
    Happens Every Day by Isabel Gillies
    It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong
    Sleeping Naked Is Green by Vanessa Farquharson

    :)

  6. February 2, 2011

    I really enjoy memoirs. I think there are some poorly written ones, but that happens in any genre.

    Better Than a Milk Mustache

  7. Mallory permalink
    February 2, 2011

    I’m going to have to be the voice of dissent in the group and say that I thought this article was spot-on. It was obviously an exaggerated reaction to having read so many crappy memoirs in a row–and there are so many crappy ones out there to choose from–and the author says that good memoirs should still be published, but that not everyone has a story.

    Gezlinger is coming at this from a literary point of view. I agree that blogs are fun to read, and they are the appropriate medium for these kinds of everyday stories.

    Whenever this debate about memoir comes up, the same few names get tossed around: Mary Karr, Jeanette Walls, Frank McCourt, etc., but these people are the GREATS. It’s the not-so-greats that Genzlinger is trying to dissuade, and he’s doing so quite comically. Because, like he says, these people are worthy of being published, but the rest belong exactly where we turn for the everyday: on a blog.

  8. Mallory permalink
    February 2, 2011

    I definitely posted that comment without editing it, and it doesn’t make much sense. Sorry. I’ve also had 3 glasses of wine. Not sorry.

  9. March 7, 2011

    Thank you for commenting on that article! I felt much the same as you when I read it, that the author was rather presumptuous in assuming all of it is terrible. While there are less-than stellar literary pieces, to say that someone’s life-story isn’t worthwhile is just plain inhumane. Everyone has had fascinating stories, but not all of us are writers. Doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t try and that doesn’t mean that their specific story won’t have an impact upon a stranger’s life.

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