The Problem With Memoirs

The Problem with Memoirs is the title of a piece that ran in yesterday's New York Times. The article is a scathing review of several new memoirs and the author, Neil Genzlinger, takes this opportunity to pretty much bash the entire genre.

I found it quite shocking to read and I'm still mulling it over. I agree that the genre can be a bit self-congratulatory and that there are a lot of memoirs out there that may have been better off as private diaries, but I also think there's a ton of terrible fiction out there as well. Does that mean we should take umbrage with the concept of novels?

Genzlinger begins his piece with this line, "A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up." And then proceeds to eviscerate three of the four memoirs he is reviewing. His criticism is often cruel and quite flippant. I can't help but wonder if he is one of those people who is threatened by memoirs because he himself doesn't feel that his life is worth writing about.

In any case, the piece has me thinking a lot about memoirs, and about the book I am only a few chapters away from finishing about my own life. It's left me self-conscious and feeling a bit insecure. It's not going to stop me from writing by any means, but I guess it's left me feeling a bit defensive.

I've always loved memoirs. I am endlessly interested in how other people go about their lives, how they react to the things that happen to them and how they choose to portray their stories to the rest of the world. I find myself incredibly thankful for memoirs and the people who write them. Reading about other people's stories, especially when it comes to grief, has been so incredibly healing and comforting to me.

I've never wanted anything more than for my book to do the same for those who read it. If you're not interested (Genzlinger, I'm looking at you), then simply DON'T READ IT. I spent some time today looking up the authors he wrote about, checking out their websites, their Amazon pages and Twitter feeds. I was struck by how hard they've worked to produce theses books that have now been so carelessly ripped apart in this review, and I'm left feeling angry and protective over them. Maybe this anger will help me channel energy into the afternoon of writing, lying ahead of me.

But I'm curious: What do you think about the article? About the memoir genre?

35 comments

35 Comments

  • Joanne
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    I love memoirs too. I couldn’t believe how harsh the writer of that review was. It seemed unnecessarily so. And don’t feel insecure because I, for one, can’t wait to read your book!

  • Caroline
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Did you read the comments on the article? There’s some really interesting stuff in there. I agree that he was quite cruel to these writers and to the genre in general.

  • Lindsay
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

    Wow – what a mean review! I feel so sorry for those writers. I think memoirs are great. I’ve also found it really helpful to read about other people’s stories.

  • Casey
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 4:29 pm | Permalink

    I love readng memoirs, far more than I like reading fiction (and I adore fiction). I’ve found it so helpful to read the experiences of others, how they deal with their life, how they express it, what they learn from their experiences. I personally have learned so much about life and humanity from reading memoirs and that’s what I adore about them. The learning experience. I think that we learn by sharing, and while I don’t deny that some memoirs are terrible, attention-seeking dribble, I agree with you Claire that there is a lot of terrible fiction out there too.

  • Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    I agree! I feel like Ive learned so much and like I said, Im so grateful for most of the memoirs I read. I can tell you from experience that theyre not easy to write.

  • Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Permalink

    It was mean, wasnt it? I just thought it was really unnecessarily harsh. There are lots of ways to give a critical review of a book and this guys tactic just seemed low.

  • Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    There is some great stuff in the comments, youre right. It seems really 50/50 on how people responded. I left a comment!

  • Posted January 31, 2011 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    Aw, thanks!

  • Lisa
    Posted January 31, 2011 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Hi Claire, I just recently found your blog and coincidentally, I am wrapping up a book proposal (fingers crossed!) for a memoir, so your journey is so interesting to me, as is the whole process of memoir. I’m a publicist by trade, and I think this article smacks so much of an editor who said, “give me something other than another review about another memoir – make it provocative!” Either that, or this guy wrote a memoir that he can’t get published! I can understand how it would make you feel self conscious for a moment but just remember, he was never your target audience, anyway — and congratulations!

  • Amy
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 12:14 am | Permalink

    My favorite books to read are memoirs. So telling, real, and so inspiring. Screw reviewer man (cannot be bothered to look up his name, sorry).
    I read and enjoy memoirs for what they are, one persons story.. So fascinating to me.
    Do not let negative people get you down. They obviously have issues they need to work out whether they know it or not. Ignore them!

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    Wow. I can’t help but think that any reviewer who has to resort to nastiness in their review is not very good at their job. He doesn’t offer much constructive feedback to the authors, nor does he really seem offer much that might help a potential reader decide whether or not they might want to read the book. Isn’t that the point of a review?
    He’s clearly got a problem with memoirs generally, which in itself isn’t a problem. But don’t let one man’s opinion make you think what you’re writing isn’t worth reading, just because it happens to fall into that genre too! There will be plenty of people who will want to read your book (myself included).

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 7:41 am | Permalink

    claire, when i was a performer, i knew that there would be some people in the audience who would HATE what i was doing onstage. i had some reviewers even seem to hate me, though they didn’t know me. it was tough to take, but i continued on because of those people who did enjoy my performances. like you say, nobody will be forced to read your book. there are a lot of memoirs out there by people who are NOT writers. YOU are a writer. and if people did not want to read about your life, this blog of yours would not exist for long. take your insecurities and drown them in a double cappuccino and get back to that manuscript! we want to read your book! 🙂

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    That reviewer is clearly either having a bad day, finds his own life unremarkable and his writing ability lacking, or a mean person. He doesn’t offer a single bit of advice for anyone considering the three ripped memoirs…just obliterates their lives as lacking diamond experiences. I agree with many of the comments posted above and on his article…if you don’t like memoirs, don’t watch them. Some people don’t like cheesy sitcoms, reality shows, game shows, or soap operas – but none of us need to read about how horrible they are. They exist because SOME people enjoy them. That’s the beauty of art and choice.
    Your writing, Claire, I love because some days a sentence or an image stays in my mind all day. You weave your life into words that I enjoy reading. I will stand in line with tears in my eyes on the day I get to buy your book. My choice to buy, my dollars to spend, my time to read.

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 12:58 pm | Permalink

    Aw, thank you so much for such kind words. I agree — his review was just so thoughtless. It was like he was just trying to get a rise out of people. Surprised to see something like that in the NYT.

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    Ha…thanks for the pep talk, Tony!

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Im at the coffee shop as we speak!
    On Tue, Feb 1, 2011 at 1:00 PM, Claire Boose clairebidwellsmith@gmail.com wrote:
    Ha…thanks for the pep talk, Tony!

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:02 pm | Permalink

    Thank you! And yes, youre right — he offers zero constructive feeback. Instead he just takes out an ax and starts hacking away at all the hard work these writers put into the books. Really insensitive and kind of malicious.

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Thanks! My favorite books are memoirs too. The reviewer shouldnt have been so blazon to speak for all of us out here who do.

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    I think youre spot on about some editor wanting something interesting. But theres a difference between MEAN and interesting! Good luck with your proposal!! Keep me posted.

  • Carroll
    Posted February 1, 2011 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

    Memoir is my favorite genre by far, and I think blog-reading must be a very natural extension of that interest in other people’s lives. I just finished reading “Summer at Tiffany” by Marjorie Hart who was 82 years old when she chronicled the summer of 1945 which she spent with her college roommate working as the first two women ever employed on the floor at Tiffany Co in NYC. They were on hand when the Queen Mary came home bringing troops back from Europe, they were in Times Square when VJ Day was declared, they met socialites, heiresses, gangsters, and young Naval officers. What better way for history (in which I have never had very much formal interest) to come alive than through the eyes of people who lived it, and who is to say that the history of an Iowa housewife, or whoever else is courageous enough to put their life down on paper for posterity, is of less value or interest to a woman in California who will not otherwise ever have the opportunity to experience those particular pieces of our endlessly interesting world?

  • Posted February 1, 2011 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    It’s so easy to be scathing and throw out an uber-cool line but its harder to gain perspective on the small or big happenings of your life and write about it intelligently and with grace. I love memoirs – I was actually commenting on them on another blog. In my favorite memoirs nothing even really happens ie. Living the Magical life by Suzie Gablik or A Year of Magical thinking by Joan Didion -(I seem to have magic on the brain) but the writing is so beautiful and moving that I feel like I am having the most fantastic and honest conversation.

  • jo
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    No need to worry about your book Claire – look how many dedicated readers your blog has! Each to their own I say (and there’s no accounting for taste – this reviewer probably loved Dan Brown’s ‘The Lost Symbol’).

  • Lisa
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    Claire – I’m wearing my publicist hat now – maybe you should write a letter to the editor in response, and talk about what inspires you about memoirs and why you are inspired, and excited, to be working on your own? Talk very specifically about the ways that memoirs helped you through your own grief process, about connection and how important it is to the human spirit, all that. Just a thought!

  • Posted February 2, 2011 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    I might just do that!

  • Posted February 2, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink

    Hahahaha!

  • Posted February 2, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Permalink

    I agree wholeheartedly! And Ive never heard of Gablik — Ill have to check her out.

  • Posted February 2, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Permalink

    Exactly!! Thats just what enrages me so much about that dismissive review. How ignorant of him. Thanks for weighing in!

  • Lyssa
    Posted February 2, 2011 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Some people are just naturally interested in hearing about the lives of others. There is only a one way we can quasi experience the world as someone else does and that’s by them telling us their version. I think it’s those same kinds of people who are also inclined to become therapists 😉
    If you look at our book collection, my side are all written by someone who experienced something extraordinary and then wrote about it. Can’t wait to read yours! I have a feeling there is going to be a lot in there I can relate to.

  • Posted February 3, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

    Aw, thanks Lyssa. And I think youre spot-on about their being certain types of people. I guess the reviewer just forgot about that whole population!

  • Posted February 4, 2011 at 11:29 pm | Permalink

    I’ve been so annoyed by Genzlinger’s essay/review I googled it to read some responses, and it’s led me to your lovely blog!
    Genzlinger writes like a crotchety old man. He says nothing new about memoir; his entire argument could have been written ten years ago.
    This is the sort of essay that has always made me nervous about writing memoir. There are always those days when the writing feels like a lost cause, like I’m just fooling myself into thinking anyone would ever find my stories interesting. Reviewers like this one only compound those fears.
    But don’t let one reviewer trying to make a splash make you self-conscious in your writing. From what I’ve read here, you’re obviously very gifted and have some fascinating stories to tell. I’m looking forward to reading more!

  • Posted February 5, 2011 at 12:59 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for your nice comment! His review really did make me feel insecure, but Im continuing to power through. I just think its absurd to discount the entire memoir genre. There are some amazing stories out there that have a huge impact on readers. Genzlinger was hasty and cruel. Keep writing!

  • Aisha
    Posted February 5, 2011 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    His article on memoirs was actually interesting (albeit not sympathetic/empathetic to the writers’ lives) but was seriously flawed. I thought his final point was interesting – that if you don’t feel like you’ve discovered something by writing the memoir then don’t publish. There’s his mistake though, every human being experiences ‘discovery’ whether through writing, painting, taking a walk in nature… and all discoveries (whether they “stick” to change your life or not) are noteworthy.
    Also found it interesting that Heather Havrilesky (one of the authours criticised) actually commented on his article.
    Also, just wanted to tell you I’ve been following your blog for about a month, and I LOVED seeing pictures of the Chicago snowstorm. I was born in the suburbs (Evanston) and love everything Chicago!

  • Posted February 6, 2011 at 9:56 am | Permalink

    You make such a great point about all discoveries being relevant. I think that the reviewer was just really hasty and thoughtless with his criticism. Glad youre enjoying our snow!

  • Posted February 6, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    Not to sound like a total crank, but I am inclined to agree with the basic thesis of Genzlinger’s piece. Some of my favorite books are memoirs and some of my favorite authors (Augusten Burroughs, Paul Theroux) write almost exclusively non-fiction based on personal experience (I don’t know if you can call it strictly memoir in both cases), but as someone who compulsively reads memoirs I find it almost doubly-insulting when they don’t have anything to say.
    Let me explain myself better. Memoir, when done well, can shake the reader to the core. The very realness of it is what makes memoir powerful. Mary Karr’s books, The Glass Castle, Dry–those are books that leave a reader changed, and that’s the purpose. Books like The Know-it-all by AJ Jacobs, any of the works of Jen Lancaster, or any other book where the writer sets out to write a memoir by embarking on a series of wacky adventures are just lame and are ruining it for the people who actually have something to say.
    I haven’t read any of the books Genzlinger mentioned, so don’t think I’m lumping them in with Jen Lancaster or Jenny McCarthy, but I think what he’s driving at (in a mean, overly pedantic way) is that to a reader it’s worse when someone writes a self-indulgent memoir than when Dan Brown writes another book about Robert Langdon because the memoirist is saying “this happened to me and you need to know about it,” rather than, “here’s a mildly entertaining story with short chapters.”
    Memoirs are supposed to mean more, and when they don’t, it’s just worse than a lame attempt at fiction. It’s like being trapped at a party with someone who is convinced that he or she is the most fascinating person in the world.
    Claire, I don’t think you fall in with the bad memoirist crowd because you’ve already proven that you have had life experiences you didn’t seek out, but that people respond to. If you decide to write another book where you wear a different wacky hat each day for a year, then I’ll call shenanigans.

  • Posted February 7, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Permalink

    I totally agree with you. This part in particular: because the memoirist is saying this happened to me and you need to
    know about it… I just wish that Genzlinger had the same eloquence you do about the subject. Instead he lumped all memoirs together. Thanks for weighing in!

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