Consider the Memoir

Because it’s Thursday, which means it’s Thursday Think Day, I’ve been thinking of how best to categorize certain memoirs I’ve read that haven’t struck me as being works of genius – or works of overwhelming merit as literature – but which do seem to follow a formula, and achieve a great deal within the parameters of that formula.  I won’t mention any by name, which will make writing about them more frustrating than it would otherwise be.

I’ve been thinking about the memoir a lot lately – not any particular one, but the memoir generally – which for me is not a passive experience; I often find that soon after I’ve started thinking about the memoir my blood has started boiling, which is a condition that can lead to hypertension.  This is not because I have something against the memoir, which I certainly don’t, as I’ve written one in manuscript form and have read many wonderful specimens of the genre.

Rather, I get so upset because just as Mark Twain said that a classic is a book that everyone praises but no one reads, a memoir is a book that no one reads but everyone likes to slander anyway.  Of course I’m generalizing in a way that isn’t productive, but I know that people do this because I’ve heard them do it, and so I’d like to submit an opinion that might help to negotiate the frustrations that are often faced by people who want to talk about memoirs but don’t want to have to read any of them.

The more I’ve read of memoirs, the clearer to me it has been, that just as the fiction landscape is occupied to a significant extent by genre fiction, such as the romance novel or science fiction, the memoir also has its own resident genre categories.  The most obvious one is the celebrity memoir, but another is the medical memoir, which I would identify as a more encompassing version of the oft-recognized cancer memoir.  There are inevitable exceptions, but the medical memoirs I have read often follow a recognizable pattern – or, failing that, resemble each other in a way that the more substantially literary memoirs do not, as the latter (in my eyes) tend simply to be more inventive with their style and structure than others (see Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments, Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time).

There is nothing inherently wrong with writing according to a formula, in the same way that there’s nothing wrong with a typical romance novel doing what a romance novel is supposed to do.  But as has been recognized, and even institutionalized in writing programs, the romance novel and the novel novel are two vastly different things; imagine Isaac Asimov’s novels being mentioned in the same breath as Virginia Woolf’s.

It’s not lost on me that the memoir’s genres are fairly well recognized; I’m not telling the world anything especially new.  But I do think this is worth talking about, as the constituent genres of memoir tend to get ignored, and all memoirs are often lumped together in one category, in a way that no one would dream of doing with fiction.  The hazards of this tendency are, as I see them:

–           that the memoir is readily misrepresented as being nothing more than the celebrity memoir plus some offshoots

–           the genre memoirs that are successful within their genre’s conditions are set against those memoirs that I               would consider more literary, and they pale in comparison, because their objectives are simply not the same, and they’re judged according to the wrong criteria.

Then again, at the same time that I would like to see the truly literary memoir set apart from those memoirs that strike me as something like genre work, I also find it very appealing to leave things as they are; as far as I know, we don’t have a situation the likes of which one finds in fiction workshops, wherein science fiction is often banned from consideration.  There are reasons for that, and I wonder if the nonfiction workshop would benefit from something similar, but for now there’s something appealing in it being left as it is.  Everyone has a place at the workshop table, and there are no high art / low art distinctions such as those I can’t seem to help making on Thursdays.

Robert Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.