Memoir under attack

“Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” — Saul Bellow

Is it time to stop the flow of memoirs? On Sunday, in “The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times reviewer Neil Genzlinger made what he called “a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre.”

Then he went on to review four new memoirs to illustrate his points. Genzlinger was pretty brutal. Three of the four memoirs, he said, didn’t need to be written.

Not only did I cringe for the three authors under attack; I took some of what he said personally. For starters, I’ve no doubt that Genzlinger would by bored to tears by my own book — a collection of personal essays celebrating ordinary family moments. And I suspect he’d advise me to discourage the students in my memoir classes to stop seeking publication.

Admittedly, some of Genzlinger’s observations are fair. Bookstore tables and shelves are stacked and stuffed with countless memoirs written by authors who’ve survived cancer, endured domestic violence, raised autistic children, lost spouses or pets, built their own houses, or moved to the country to “simplify” their long-suffering suburban lives. Genzlinger doubts that there’s anything new to add to the genre of personal experience.

If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already in it. Imitation runs rampant in memoir land.” – Neil Genzlinger

Does this really mean that the rest of us leading ordinary lives have no right to write and share our stories?

“If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead, hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life,” Genzlinger advised.

This flies in the face of nearly everything I’ve told my students — and it certainly doesn’t do much to dignify blogging, a favorite second cousin of memoir writing.

In my classes, the majority of new students worry about appearing arrogant when they start writing in the first person. More often than not, my biggest challenge is to assure them that we’ve all learned a thing or two from our experiences; that our stories are worth recording and sharing. So, maybe none of us will make the best-seller list. But I believe we deserve — at the very least — permission to share our history and life lessons with loved ones, if not a wider readership. What do you think? –CL

— “Writer” collage by Cindy La Ferle —

20 thoughts on “Memoir under attack

  1. Wow… the Genzlinger review was harsh and painful. I don’t base my reading selections on reviews except when I know the person reviewing!

    In my book discussion group a new member told us that he only likes books that have positive reviews in certain newspapers.

    I can control what passes my lips (sometimes) but my eyebrows are another matter… his comments made my eyebrows disappear!

  2. Sure there is a glut of memoirs on the market along with a glut of every other type of genre as well, i.e., cooking, diet, crafting, self-help…

    I say full steam ahead! Write what makes you happy and fills those empty pockets of your soul with hope, peace and love.

    Hugs, Margie

  3. I do see what Genzlinger is saying, and somewhat agree. All the stories have been told, so for a memoir to be effective, it has to be told in a new way, some way we’ve never seen before. I’ve read a couple lately that have done this. One was about the author winning a struggle with alcoholism, but it was the author’s horse that helped her win. This equine thread throughout the story made it seem somehow new. So I think it’s important for the author to bring a really fresh angle to their story for it to grab the market and not become just one more in “the pile.”

  4. @Joanne: I love how you said, “it has to be told in a new way, some way we’ve never seen before.” Good craftsmanship is essential — and can make an “old” theme or story sparkle.

    @Margie: Good points about the glut of publication in every other genre. Sometimes I go to bookstores and feel equal parts overwhelmed and excited. Sometimes there are so many choices, I don’t make any. But maybe that’s a good thing for someone whose shelves are groaning with unread books!

  5. Harsh review and I’m not in total disagreement.
    Where’s the line between memoir and tell all?
    Is the difference between an “ordinary” life and the life of a memoirist, publication? Does the memoir elevate the reader? There are the tell-all confessions. And then there is the memoir whose author takes the reader into her struggle to grow and find answers to what life is all about. My money’s on Dani Shapiro. Her latest — Devotion — was marvelous.

  6. Well Cindy, I don’t think I could keep functioning if I didn’t write about my personal experiences. Each time I write I seem to find little things about me helping me understand who I am.

    There is nothing like hearing from a reader who says, “I felt that way too, I just didn’t know how to put it into words.”

    Ok, so I will never be a famous writer but since I have taken classes on writing like yours, (Thank You,) it has helped me to strive for excellence. Now if I could find a class on being a better husband.

    Your student

  7. Debra, I’ve heard good things about Shapiro’s book. Will definitely check it out. And I totally agree with you about the memoir author who “take the reader into her struggle to grow and find answers…”

    Scott, thanks for your comment. In your writings, you do exactly what I quoted Debra as saying, above. You learn through your struggles and you share what you’ve learned with your readers, showing us that “the personal is universal.” Like you, I love it when readers come back to say that my writing has expressed something they felt too. And as for being a good husband, I’m guessing that if you devote as much of your care and energy to your marriage as you do to your writing, you’ll be golden.

  8. The review was harsh and could very well be the straw that breaks the backs of writers who are already battling fears and doubt about writing in general and writing their personal stories.

    But I’m with you on this issues Cindy. We must write our stories, if not for others, for ourselves, our hearts need it and our writing selves crave it.

  9. Oh wow! He was brutal!
    Now let me get this straight, not every memoir that is written is published, right? And from what I understand it’s not that easy to get any book published?
    So to me that fact that these memoirs have even been published at all says something about their worth.

  10. Cindy – fascinating blog entry and the comments – all of them – interesting and all made good points. I hate to be a little irrelavant or irreverent – and you my dear Cindy, know me too well, but I sincerely believe that Genzlinger was suffering from gas when he wrote what he wrote. Sounds like he crawled out from under the wrong side of he rock and was just not a happy camper. Yes, we all have yawned when another book comes out about the same topic, over and over again, but I say, write it – most likely if the book has done the author good – great; if the book has saved a depressed soul – great; if the book has inspired someone – fantastic; and if the book doesn’t sell, so what. Sorry, I’m rambling, just stopped by to say hello and always find such interesting fodder here! Love your writing!

  11. I guess I’m going to have a different perspective since I have little interest in what professional reviewers have to say. I am a maverick writer- I abhor technique and grammar and rules. I do it because I do- not to impress. It’s not an ideology, just always been that way for me. Great in comp lit, terrible in English Comp! I think writing is a bit like physical exercise- everyone should do it regularly whether they are great atheletes or just people who want to. So called ordinary lives are fascinating- generally revealing how few people really are ordinary. He is an arrogant elitist. It is not a club that he decides who is in and who is out…. I guess you can see that I am passionate about it.
    Memoirs are popular because everyone loves looking into everyone else’s windows when the curtains are open! This will always be so. In my opinionated opinion,:)

  12. Cindy, I found myself thinking about this post today. I, too, wondered what got this critic so riled up. People have a right to tell their stories, and if they are published and purchased it means their story struck a chord with someone. Different stories and styles of writing appeal to different readers, and the marketplace soon weeds out the ones that don’t belong on the shelf.

  13. Wow — I knew this topic would trigger riveting conversation. Starrlife, I love how you noted that “everyone loves looking into everyone else’s windows when the curtains are open” — which is spot on, and the reason we all enjoy a good memoir. And it’s why someone doesn’t have to fall out of an airplane and live to tell the tale in order to be worthy of writing a memoir. I love reading stories about daily struggles and I believe that good writers find poetry and beauty in the simple tasks and ordinary moments.

    It’s important to realize, I suppose, that there’s a different between writing for pleasure and writing for publication.

    As a couple of you pointed out, not all of us plan to publish our memoirs, or if we do, we might self-publish them for a smaller audience (including our families). With that in mind, what bothers me the most about Genzlinger’s “review” is that he used the phrase “hit the delete key” when he spoke to would-be memoirists. Hit the delete key ?!? Not only was he implying that the rest of us shouldn’t publish, but he suggested that our memoirs are not even worth saving for our own pleasure and interest. Elitist, for sure.

  14. {i love the photos you’ve been posting!}
    i wonder about this often. i’d love to write more than my blog, but really, my life looks so mundane. 🙂 for now, i relish memoirs, to admire those who face adversity and take risks…

  15. Wow, I feel sorry for Mr. G. I think writing is thinking, and I would encourage people to write about their lives in order to “process” their thoughts and feelings. That’s what I did with the stories in my book, which should be out in a few weeks on Amazon. I wrote about incidents in my life in order to process my feelings and thoughts. Later, I decided to compile them into a book. I think all of us are entitled to express ourselves through memoirs — whether or not we publish them. As I see it, we write them first for ourselves, and then for others. I would ALWAYS encourage people to write — and writing about what we know is a time-tested axiom. Cindy, I agree with you that what’s most personal is most universal. Memoirs might not ring Mr. G’s chimes, but for those who appreciate them, they might be just what they need to hear.

  16. I don’t read book reviews nearly as often as I read movie reviews. I’ve gotten to the point that I can tell which reviewers (for several different newspapers/magazines) will or won’t like a film and how nasty or kind their review will be based on who starred, directed and/or wrote the script. I’m guessing book reviewers are similar.

    What bugs me the most is when reviewers/critics get mean-spirited, snarky and just plain rude about someone else’s work… That’s where I think the publication’s Editor should step in and “hit the delete key”.

    Cheers, jj

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