Barking Kitten

Fiction, musings on literature, food writing, and the occasional Friday cat blog. For lovers of serious literature, cooking, and eating.


Close to forty. Not cool. Politically left. Atheist. Happily married. No kids.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

The thin line between memoir and muck

My unhappiness over Maryann Burk Carver's memoir of life with Raymond got me thinking. When is a memoir a welcome contribution, and when is it sensationalist?

A random list of sensationalist memoirs, assembled courtesy of the search engine:

From Binge to Blackout: A Mother and Son Struggle with Teen Drinking by Edward A. Malloy, Cardwell C. Nuckols, Chris Volkmann, and Toren Volkmann

More, Now, Again: A Memoir of Addiction by Elizabeth Wurtzel

Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul by Tony Hendra

How to Cook Your Daughter: A Memoir
by Jessica Hendra (Author), Blake Morrison (Author)

I read the Elizabeth Wurtzel book. I hated it. Talk about rich, spoiled, and whining. I have not read the others, and cannot comment on their literary quality. What I can say, though, is they attach themselves to current-day issues. Everyone is worried over teen drinking, drugging, and screwing. Everyone wants to know what it is/was like to cohabitate with the (in)famous.

The Hendra memoirs inhabit an especially bizarre spot in the memior pantheon: the treacly tell-all by a mildy famous person (Tony Hendra is the beleagured band manager in the classic movie "This is Spinal Tap.") Jessica Hendra, his daughter, offers a bracing corrective in her memior, accusing her father of molestation. Did he? Maybe. But do I NEED TO KNOW?


Some older folk may recall Barbara Gordon's 1982 memior of Valium addiction, I'm dancing as fast as I can. Her ex-boyfriend, heavily villanized in the book, wrote a response of his own, which I am sorry to say I cannot locate. I can't remember his name. I do recall his efforts to assert his own goodness and fine behavior in helping Barbara overcome her troubles by locking her in their bedroom. I also recall--I was 15 in 1982--thinking what jerks both of them were. Why hold the seamier aspects of private life up for public scrutiny?

Well, money, for one. Money is nice, and I am certain the above folks got some. Fame. Glory. Visits with Oprah. The need to publicly get it--whatever IT is--off your chest. To be understood.

Another random memior search, not from Amazon, but my living room bookshelves:

Julia Alvarez: Something to Declare

Joan Didion: Where I was From

Andre Dubus: Meditations from a Moveable Chair

Donald Hall: Without

Kathryn Harrison: The Kiss, the Mother Knot, Seeking Rapture

Nancy Mairs: Waist High in the World

Tess Gallagher, Raymond Carver's second wife, has written extensive amounts of poetry about her life with and without Ray. These poems appear in various volumes.

Oh, yes, Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty. Wouldn't want to forget that one.

From this incomplete list you may discern an interest in women's lives, dislocation, drug use (Patchett writes about Lucy Grealy), incest (Harrison), and disabled folks (Mairs, Dubus). Sensationalist topics all. So what makes these books better than Marley and Me or Tuesdays with Morrie? (okay, cheap shots, yeah, I know.)

Hmm. Well, all of the above were writers before they were memiorists. They put in time the hard way. To use the old saw, they honed their craft. All took tough topics--you try writing about incest--and rendered them into beautiful sentences.

Here's Joan Didion, talking about her Californian ancestors:

"These women in my family would seem to have been pragmatic and in their deepest instincts clinically radical, given to breaking clean with everyone and everything they knew. They could shoot and they could handle stock and when their children outgrew their shoes they could learn from the Indians how to make moccasins." (7)

Nancy Mairs, discussing life with Multiple Sclerosis:

"The world to which I am a material witness is a difficult one to love. But I am not alone in it now; and as the population ages, more and more people--a significant majority of them women--may join me in it, learning to negotiate a chill and rubble-strewn landscape with impaired eyesight and hearing and mobility, searching out some kind of home there." (63)

Finally, Ann Patchett's closing words from Truth and Beauty:

"Lucy, having survived thirty-eight operations, had become officailly invincible. She believed that the most basic rules of life did not apply to her, and over the course of our friendship, without me knowing when it had happened, I had come to believe it myself. The sheer force of Lucy's life convinced me that she would live no matter what.

That was my mistake." (256-7)

Like the finest novels, these memiors take you places you might never otherwise visit, much less understand. In relating their stories, these writers do not ask for our pity or demand our sympathy: instead, they earn our respect.

Still, the line's a thin one, subject to fickle opinion. The memoir machine will grind on unchecked, feeding the public's appetite for the badly behaved, the tragically afflicted, those who knew somebody famous. People will be paid good money to write bad books read by an unthinking public.

Don't believe it?

Mitch Albom is embarking on a 62 city book tour.

Caveat Emptor.

Books cited:

Joan Didion. Where I was From. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Nancy Mairs. Waist high in the World: A life among the non-disabled. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Ann Patchett. Truth and Beauty: A friendship. New York: Harper Collins, 2004.

Authors, Books, Memoir


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