Memoir: Ah, Yes, I Remember It Well
I didn’t learn to read non-fiction until 1989. Well sure, I did my homework in college and read plenty of textbooks, but at heart I was strictly a fiction girl; novels were my bag. However, when I was hired as a non-fiction editor by Ballantine Books, I had to learn to read and appreciate a range of new genres: health, self-help, popular culture and more.
And then I met my first memoir. It was something of a golden age of memoir publishing then, in the early 90s; Mary Karr, Tobias & Geoffrey Wolff and Susanna Kaysen were some of my newly discovered favorites. They wrote works of poetic and profoundly beautiful and moving storytelling—but not fiction.
I know what you’re thinking. Your skeptical brain is thinking about recent literary scandals, James Frey and the like, purported memoirists who turned out to be playing loosely with truth. And you are calling into question the actual abilities of memory, whether one can accurately recall what someone said or exactly what happened and in what order.
I accede: truth is a fuzzy, slippery thing. We can see that by comparing Ann Patchett’s version of a friendship in Truth & Beauty: A Friendship to Lucy Grealy’s story in Autobiography of a Face, or by trying to line up Geoffrey Wolff’s memories of life with dad in The Duke of Deception to brother Toby’s of life with mom in This Boy's Life. But slippery as the truth may be, memoir, even at its best with storytelling cadences that resemble fiction, is a unique art form that sits within the crosshairs of history and biography, and somewhere in the vicinity of truth; it is perhaps best defined as personal truth.
Memoir is a popular topic here in Philadelphia. In his book Memoir: A History, local critic Ben Yagoda traces the history of the genre, and Philly writer Beth Kephart has a new wonderfully-titled book about writing memoir called Handling the Truth. Publisher’s fall and winter lists are packed with this well-liked genre. There are, for example, three in the winter 2014 catalogue of W. W. Norton: a “memoir of resilience” by Eileen Cronin, who was born without legs, a story of growing up with an erratic and dangerous older brother by Blake Bailey and a story of a journey to motherhood and understanding through adoption by Susanne Antonetta. Little, Brown & Co. has A Thousand Hills To Heaven: Love, Hope, and a Restaurant in Rwanda by Josh Ruxin (November, 2013). (All of these, while fully original, echo earlier popular memoirists’ work—Burroughs, Winterson, Grealy and others—in touching upon the traumatic upbringing, the physical disadvantage, or the journey to a foreign land.) Random House has seven new memoirs forthcoming, including three with star power: My Brief History by Stephen Hawking (Bantam), the paperback of Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie, and Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart (due in January, 2014).
As William Zinsser says in his 2006 essay in The American Scholar on “How to Write a Memoir,” “writers are the custodians of memory,” and we well know George Santayana’s exhortation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Our memoirists fill an important role for us by engaging memory, challenging it and wrestling it into a manageable page-sized version that can be shared and whose lessons can be partaken of by readers. It’s a publishing mission well worth remembering.