Neil Genzlinger has dropped the bomb. In a supposed review of four memoirs, he goes off on what’s really eating him: the fact that people are writing memoirs at all:
A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.
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. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.
Now, I’ve always ascribed to the belief that every life was remarkable. There is no such thing as an “unremarkable life.” The human condition is remarkable, for crying out loud. There is mystery and wonder everywhere.
That’s not to say that there isn’t some cogent advice in Mr. Genzlinger’s harsh and just-plain-rude write-up in the Times Sunday Book Review. Here’s the good stuff separated from the emotional vomiting that Genzlinger himself is quite guilty of. If you can get past the snarky tone, you can see that there’s some decent advice in there. Let’s break it down:
- Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy.
This, I think, is a question with which all serious memoirists struggle (or should): is this really interesting? It’s hard to know when we’re writing about topics that can’t help but be personal if there’s something in there that will interest, enlighten, entertain or somehow impact a reader. This is precisely why I feel it’s important that we have readers for our work that are willing to be honest and brutal in their feedback. Not the kind of brutal that reads along the lines of, “this sucks, you suck,” but that which goes like this, “I’m not feeling this section; I don’t know why this is here; This is not particularly interesting nor does it move the narrative along.”
- No one wants to relive your misery.
While I believe that good writing does, in fact, make the reader relive the experience (and should!), I agree that it can’t be just misery. It’s important to give readers breathing space, to make them laugh as well as cry, to make them angry and outraged and happy. Basically, it’s important to make readers feel a full range of emotion. Otherwise, we’re just dumping, emotionally vomiting, as it were, on our readers. And that’s just not cool.
- That’s what happens when immature writers write memoirs: they don’t realize that an ordeal, served up without perspective or perceptiveness, is merely an ordeal.
And here’s perhaps the most perceptive thing Mr. Genzliner has to say. All the joy and pain mean nothing without perspective and perceptiveness. The writer and the reader need both. Otherwise, we’re just like eyewitnesses to a crime giving a police report – just the facts. This happened, then this happened, then this happened. We need perspective on a situation, we need time and space before writing about it.
- If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.
I’m not sure I entirely agree with this point, though I do see merit in the suggestion. I think, at the very least, other characters in the memoir should be at least as fully developed as the first-person narrator. That’s just good storytelling.
- Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.
Yes, that is a good rule of thumb. But that’s a good rule of thumb for all writing – fiction, nonfiction, poetry. And where Mr. Genzlinger gives the writer a little too much credit is when he admonishes us to not “publish it” – as if we have complete control over that. I mean, I’ve submitted lots of writing for publication, that doesn’t mean it’s all in print. That’s why we have editors – to keep the bad writing out and let the good writing through. And yes, it’s true, we live in an age where self-publishing is becoming all too easy. But any discerning reader knows the difference between a book put out by a large house press or a university press and one put out by Kindle.
It’s a scary time to be writing a memoir. It’s true that there’s been an outpouring of memoir in recent years creating an “absurdly bloated genre,” as Mr. Genzlinger puts it. And it is ultimately good that readers and critics look closely at the burgeoning genre and comment in an effort to shape just exactly what makes a memoir “good.” What makes for “good” fiction and “good” poetry has been hashed out, discussed and belabored. In an era that is welcoming in nonfiction with unprecedented open arms, it seems natural that this sort of banter and heated debate should ensue. And that adds a heightened sense of responsibility when writing. This, in the end, is a good thing. We who are writing in the genre should welcome the discussion. But any discussion, no matter how many bits of good advice it entails, that tells you your life is not worth writing or that you should “shut up,” should be put in its place immediately.
There will always be Genzlingers out there. Take the good and trash the crap. Refuse to be silenced. And write a kick-ass memoir.