A book that intelligently and capaciously introduces memoir for the general reader is, like a Chicago Cubs pennant or a movie reuniting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, long overdue. Such a flight I’ve been expecting, and I’m happy to say the bird has landed. So much about the memoir’s individuation in recent years, having gained traction as art and as therapy, C. Thomas Couser addresses. It seems there are few better qualified than he to take on the form. Since the late 1970s, Couser, an American Studies professor at Hofstra University, has become a formidable authority on life-writing—with American Autobiography (1979) and Altered Egos (1989), about our national obsession for self-writing; Recovering Bodies (1997) and Signifying Bodies (2009), about the true stories of the ill and disabled; and Vulnerable Subjects (2003), about the ethical land mines authors face, writing about willing and recalcitrant intimates.
For Couser, two strains comprise memoir’s literary identity. First is historical: the personal narrative runs deep with Americans, in literary and so-called everyday writing. As a people we create ourselves anew by changing jobs, partners, homes, and callings constantly; like second acts, our stories, for more than three hundred years, reflect these journeys. Radically dissimilar styles separate the Indian captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1682) from the lost family grief of Joel Peckham (2012), but both are self-transformative. Finding commonalities, Couser, a latter-day Linnaean taxonomist, exemplifies the many subject-matter varieties of autobiography and memoir. We read about such highly plumed and now ubiquitous species as autopathography (the illness and disability tale), shtick lit (the intentional memoir), scriptotherapy (the self-healing tome), matrio- and patriography (Mom and Dad, right and wrong), and, most popular, the nobody memoir, or how this inauspicious “I” grew. Of course, each of these has its bestseller and its thousand and one less-sellers.
The author’s second strain, coming in his best chapter, “Memoir’s Forms,” contrasts the memoir and the novel. “Fiction,” Couser writes, “has been more varied, inventive, and experimental in form than the literary memoir.” (I would add, so far.) Novels create funhouses for unreliable narrators, epics of multiple omniscience, vampirish gore-fests: Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie (1995), a sorrow-plagued soliloquy on the hopelessness of being undead and having only one menu item. Twain casts Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1883) as a “single-experience memoir,” yet it’s doubtful that a true-life Huck could have been penned the autobiographical version with any of the artful vernacular Twain created for his wisenheimer narrator. “Fiction,” Couser writes, “can go where memoir cannot, even when—perhaps especially when—it simulates memoir.”
Thus, the novel requires impersonation, while the memoir does not. Must not. If a memoir is impersonal, solipsistic, tendentious, cloyingly self-helpful, it’s likely to be avoiding honesty. The worst of these are hoaxes. Of which we’ve had plenty. Memoirs of impersonation are super-self-serving. Couser classifieds many, calling them works of “existential fraud.” He hammers away at such elegant deceivers as James Frey (who outright lies about his life), John Neihardt (who censors or leaves unaddressed Black Elk’s conversion to Christianity), and Oliver Sacks (who trades his subjects’ individuality for one of the author’s “syndromes”). Another category raises Couser’s hackles; These are memoirs about family members with a disability or an illness, with criminal or unwanted or accidental celebrity (a psychopathic uncle, a beloved writer who was a lousy father), and who because they are sick, inarticulate, imprisoned, or dead cannot defend themselves against the score-settling memoirist.
Couser wants memoirists to avoid such exigencies of intent as well as downplay techniques the novel trades in. For example, it makes no sense that a memoirist use interior monologue (a novelistic device) because the memoirist (author, character, narrator) already has self-access. Likewise with indirect discourse and omniscience. No life-writer can get inside others’ heads, unless told; no life-writer can report what others say about him, unless told. These are necessary distinctions if we are to...