Me, You and Us: the Problem with Memoir.

We are suffocating in memoir. Titles clog the bookshop shelves: My Life, Living with Cancer, My Abusive Mother, Poor Little Rich Girl, Poor Little Rich Boy, Skating on Thin Ice, Running a Marathon, Starving for Love, Living Black, Living under Cover.

The list goes on. And every month there’s another avalanche. Of course, in the rubble there are some gems, memoirs that reach out to a reader, that are about much more than Me Me Me, memoirs with ideas and reflections that stretch beyond the events of a single individual’s life. But unless you already know the author – Oliver Sacks, for example, or Jenny Diski, or Robert Gottlieb (his Avid Readeris a gift to all writers and readers) – it can be hard to find the good amongst the dross.

There’s a mistaken belief that memoirs are true, but when someone writes a memoir they select from life and they select from memory. It is not the whole story, it is not even an accurate portrayal of part of it. When people write a memoir they do so for one or more of many possible reasons, and those reasons shape what goes into the memoir. Of course a memoir does not reveal the truth, the full truth, the only truth.

Then there are the fictionedmemoirs, like Siri Hustvedt’s new book, Memories of the Future, and Lisa Halliday’s Asymmetry. These are memoirs with a glaze of fiction, a hybrid form that seems to do little justice either to fiction or memoir, but gives ample room for a writer to resurrect aspects of her/his past and dwell on these. Clearly the author gets something out of it, or else they wouldn’t bother: a sense of play perhaps, or an innocent indulgence, or the pleasure of placing one’s own experience centre-stage. But when the subject matter draws on the author’s relationship with a well-known writer, as is the case with Halliday’s book, there can be something quite instrumental and calculating in the events selected. (Can Halliday’s book stand on its own, without the Roth connection? Yes, it can. It’s well-constructed, and well-written. Is it one of the best May-September novels ever written? No it’s not. Would readers have taken notice of it, and, more to the point would publishershave taken notice of it – it’s a first novel – without the Roth connection? Probably not.)

So what is happening here with all these memoirs and fictioned memoirs? Why in an era where the self has so many platforms and stages, do books need to be co-opted as well? Surely with Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, with blogs and millions of web groups, with reality programs occupying more and more of free-to-air TV, the self has ample opportunity to bare its chest, to dance a tango, to do whatever it likes. And it can do it all the time. With people posting on social media numerous times daily, and checking for ‘likes’ even more often, the self never need to take a break from itself.* And perhaps that’s the nub: the self and the selves of our circle (which, these days, can stretch to thousands of strangers) are our main project, and for some of us, our sole project.

So many of the memoirs portray the self, the central character, as a victim. Of course, the very fact of writing the memoir, means the author has triumphed over their victim status, over adversity, but why would anyone want to dwell on it, and dwell for the years it takes to write a book? Why would I want to share my pain with you, a pack of strangers? And why would you, strangers all, want to read about me?

Voyeurism is not the whole explanation, but it plays a role. In much the same way that hardship stories fill the magazine programs on TV, we are drawn to hard-luck stories, particularly from the comfort of our own lounge room. But there are other factors at work here. The boundary between life and entertainment has blurred, and what’s real and what’s contrived/invented has similarly blurred. And being a promoter of self is so easy; it takes far less effort and imagination than learning about other people, people different from you. In the current world we reveal ourselves to people who are like ourselves, and vice versa. In this world, despite its porous borders and its multicultural societies, we are in danger of becoming more insular than ever before. Then there’s the clamouring NOW. Being a promoter of self, roots you in an ever-present, and history becomes irrelevant. With the demise of history, the major source of analysing and understanding the present is being lost.

Not so long ago (but, I’m pleased to note, before Invented Liveswas published) a friend asked me where all the good novels had gone. ‘Into memoir,’ I replied, ‘into memoir.’ Memoir is replacing fiction, self is replacing character, remembered facts are replacing an active imagination. The plethora of memoirs is doing more than just filling our leisure time, it is feeding a new type of person whose major concern is the cultivation of self, whose imagination is sluggish, who is constantly busy, stressfullybusy, with little to show for it at the end of the day.

I have often joked that fiction readers make better citizens. But the fact is that the deep immersion in fiction, the connecting in an imaginative way to characters/people who are very different from you, who might live at another time and/or in another culture, develops an understanding of life beyond your own experience. Fiction can take you into the world, and indeed the mind, of a dictator, a child soldier, a politician. Fiction can take you out of yourself. And what a gift and a relief that can be.


* What exactly do we derive from those ‘likes’? That people appreciated your post? Understood it? Laughed at it? Engaged with it? Or is it all about you wanting to be reassured you are not alone in your life? When togetherness is reduced to a click, we’re in a good deal of trouble.

8 thoughts on “Me, You and Us: the Problem with Memoir.

  1. Jan Dickinson

    Such a good article. My shelves are groaning (my Kindle is groaning too) under the weight of books that promised so much and delivered so little, in literary terms. I had already resolved to buy no more memoir. I have read some wonderful works of autobiography (think of Elias Canetti) over the years but ‘memoir’ is another genre really, and a bit too self-indulgent for my liking. I love the novel form for the truths it can tell, requiring more discipline.

  2. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    Thanks so much, Jan, I really appreciate your thoughts, particularly your comment about fiction. I wonder if you’ve read Claire Tomalin’s ‘A Life of My Own’. She is one of the most creative biographers writing in English today, but when it comes to her own life she is oddly coy and unimaginative. Then there’s a memoir like Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’, which is a story of a time and a culture, imaginatively told. I would feel more kindly disposed towards Canetti if he had been more kindly disposed towards Iris Murdoch. Now, there’s a writer who knew how to put truths into fiction.

    1. Jan Dickinson

      Andrea, I’ve been meaning ti respond to this and to the reply below too, but have been travelling. Yes, I love Tomlin’s work and as I hadn’t read the memoir, I will give it a miss. I certainly agree about Patti Smith. As for Canetti, I can’t be objective (though I admire Iris Murdoch’s works) because his books and also people like Gregor Von Rezzori, Joseph Roth, transported me when I was quite young, to an intellectual world completely foreign to me, in both fiction and non-fiction.
      As for fiction, I cannot exist without it but I always have at least four books on the go. I am presently reading ‘Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics’ by Stephen Greenblatt. A terrifyingly prescient examination of why people and societies allow themselves to be lied to.
      I am also reading two books about politics in 15th century Italy, because that is the subject of my own next book.
      And…and entirely coincidentally, I am almost finished ‘Invented Lives.’ I am finding it utterly compelling. The novel before it was ‘A Universe of Sufficient Size’ by Miriam Sved, which tells the story of five young Jewish mathematicians in Hungary in 1938. Whilst I have read a great deal about Jewish lives in European countries I knew hardly anything about Russian or Soviet Jews. Taking those books and ‘Tyrant’ and given the current situation here and throughout the world, I am finding it a bit distressing. I would scamper back to the 15th century except that it is the same! Do we never learn?
      I did enjoy ‘Stasiland’, but I also enjoyed ‘All the I am’. It was one of many recent novels, including’ Invented Lives’, Universe of Sufficient Size’, my own recent ‘The Sweet Hills of Florence’ and several others, that bring European history starkly into the modern lives we live here, a continuum, not a past detached from us, but viewed through the prism of Australian lives.
      To finish where we started, with not ‘memoir’ but autobiography, I read ‘The Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony’ when I was very young and it stays with me still. Thanks for making me think about all these matters.

      1. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

        These exchanges, yours Jan, and the one below, are bringing up some excellent reading suggestions (including my own Invented Lives – for which I am grateful – thank you, Jan). I have just finished Andrew Sean Greer’s ‘Less’. It is a novel in keeping with T.S. Eliot’s ‘We shall not case from exploration/ And the end of our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time.’ But mainly, post-election, I’m reading Henry Giroux, Zygmunt Bauman and Timothy Snyder, three writers who remind us of the importance of the social contract, of shared values, of a common good, of what it is to be human in this age of individualism and consumerism.

  3. mranderson53

    Thanks for the article, Andrea. I totally agree about the requirements of fiction in terms of ‘head space’. I have found in recent years that fiction can be a struggle while working full time. And you know jobs these days…KPIs, targets, efficiency strategies etc. I feel that I often can’t immerse myself in the imagined world of fiction, and I turn to biographical or political texts, which don’t require me to construct a world piece by detailed piece that the fiction author demands of me. it takes an astonishing novel to arrest my attention. Recently, Amor Towles managed to do it – such good writing, and fun! (Your friend Glenda recommended that to me) But I’ve had more luck with titles like: Bird by Bird, In Cold Blood, Stasiland and the Last Man in Europe. All non-fiction, really. A closer connection to the ‘real world’ anyway. I tend to leave fiction to the holidays. I’m currently reading Hal Porter’s ‘Watcher on the Cast Iron Balcony’, quite dense at times, but he’s winning me over…(I used to live in his childhood street in Kensington)

  4. Andrea Goldsmith Post author

    Thank you for your thoughts – and reading suggestions, too. I know many people who leave fiction for holidays, when there’s extended time for the imaginative immersion that fiction requires of a reader. But it seems such a long time between pleasures! Have you thought about taking a digital sabbath? It doesn’t need to be 24 hours, it could just be, say, Saturday afternoon. It is your time to do whatever you please. For me it is listening to a symphony or reading fiction or day-dreaming, your choices might be different. But whatever you choose this is your ‘imagination time’.

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