- In Defense of Art (at Truth’s Expense)
Last spring, two omnibus reviews of memoirs were published within a few weeks of each other in the New York Times and the New York Review of Books. The books featured in each seem to have been chosen just because they were published around the same time. Despite such slapdash selection, and the reviews having been written by two different writers, Neil Genzlinger and Lorrie Moore, both arrived at similar conclusions: there are too many memoirs.
In his review for the Times, “The Problem with Memoirs,” Genzlinger opened with book-critic guns blazing: “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” In her review “What If?” for the Review, Moore (who actually references Genzlinger) playfully meditates on possible “good reasons” for writing a memoir: “Are you Winston Churchill? Are you Nixon in China? Are you Pat Nixon in China? Did you compose Nixon in China?” Like Genzlinger, she suggests there are lives that are worthy of memoir and lives that aren’t. For the unlucky, she offers a consolation prize: the autobiographical novel. For Moore, it is sticking too closely to the truth—inconvenient, [End Page 185] incomplete or just boring—that limits the memoir’s potential. “Ironically, the genre of the novel,” she writes, “with its subtle characterizations and rich and continuous dreamscape, remains a kind of gold standard for a genre that may be usurping it.”
The hubbub (on social media) raised by these reviews was mostly the noise of memoir writers expressing outrage. They were mad, and vocally so, and most of them asked some version of “Why does the memoir have to justify itself in ways that other genres, including the novel, do not?”
Like those writers, I didn’t agree that extraordinary living was a prerequisite for a memoir. (After all, doesn’t giving automatic credit to an exciting life actually undermine the expectation for art-making?) The writing could be extraordinary even if the events described were mundane. I also didn’t agree, publishing trends aside, that a memoir must focus on some heretofore unexplored suffering—some new condition or disease or drug we haven’t yet seen—which seemed to imply that our capacity for empathy was too limited to invite, say, two or even three memoirs about grief. And I certainly didn’t even agree with either of the writers’ tones (Genzlinger’s a little too smartass, Moore’s a little too Moore). But I did agree (quietly, and not on Facebook) with what felt like the reviewers’ two essential premises: first, that the memoir, like the novel, has to be as artistically developed as any other form of art and not just a record of life events, even if it is about them; and second, the memoir’s defining characteristic—its truth—is often its greatest limitation.
I found myself thinking over these book reviews when reading the author’s note of Glen Retief’s The Jack Bank: A Memoir of a South African Childhood (St. Martin’s Press, 2011, now available in paperback). Almost nervous in tone, Retief’s note at the end of his memoir is essentially a defense of memoir as a form. (When would a novelist have to defend the existence of his own novel unless it was based upon and borrowed from the truth?) Most of it focuses on where Retief deviated from the hard line of truth in the creation of art—either because he simply couldn’t remember, or because his memory didn’t match the recollection of another person. He justifies these moments in what amounts to the book’s ars poetica: “In order to be art as well as truth—to allow the reader to enter the story and not just encounter...