A Slam of Memoir in Today’s NYTBR

Neil Genzlinger has a few things to say about “the problem with memoirs” in this week’s NYTBR. Like this:

So in a possibly futile effort to restore some standards to this absurdly bloated genre, here are a few guidelines for would-be memoirists, arrived at after reading four new memoirs. Three of the four did not need to be written, a ratio that probably applies to all memoirs published over the last two decades. Sorry to be so harsh, but this flood just has to be stopped.”

And this:

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. There’s no shame in that.”

And other things, too.


  • So what’s the proper etiquette for when someone tells you some story about their childhood/divorce/addiction/pet/abuser then follows it up with “So and so says I should write a book!” It seems rude to tell people that you need more than a sob story to sell a book. Except I agree that a lot of memoirs do get picked up for the tearing-at-the-heartstrings factor. Ah well. I guess I like it when people write…

  • It would be just as easy to summarily dismiss the novel as a genre if we eschewed the distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction, as critics of the memoir do with respect to it. I am willing to bet that at least three out of four of the novels published in the last year, or century, are not of substantial literary worth, if one considers romance novels and bad science fiction to be equivalent to something by Marilynne Robinson. Memoir-bashers conveniently disregard this sort of distinction, and lump all memoirs together as if all of them were equal and each served a common purpose. What if we disregarded all poetry because of what gets written in greeting cards, or held up Jewel’s book as an example of how unfortunate it is that anyone writes poetry? The gulf between bad celebrity memoirs, or half-baked cancer memoirs, and work by the likes of Nick Flynn, Mary McCarthy, and Alison Bechdel, to name just a few, is just as wide.

  • Pete says:

    I agree with the writer. The unexamined life may not be worth living, but that doesn’t mean the examined life is necessarily worth blabbering about to others.

    • Marcus says:

      I might get clobbered for this, but in a way I agree. Almost all of the nonfiction submissions that I receive are completed memoirs (as opposed to, say, interesting project proposals). And they always amount to nothing. This happened, then that happened, now this is happening, the end.

      And the question I am constantly asking is, So what? What is the reader going to get out of this? Why should anyone care?

      I don’t ask to be mean, but really, why would a reader (any reader, not just me) be interested in your life? If the answer is “Because they know me,” then there’s no reason to submit it for publishing. Go ahead and have fifty copies printed up for your family and friends, sure. But unless your name is Richard Nixon or Cher or Ted Bundy, nobody cares about your life except in what they can get out of it.

      People are selfish. They want to get something out of a book, not be witnesses to some useless self-indulging prattle. Nonfiction needs to offer the reader something. Maybe it’s recipes for zucchini, or instructions on how to build 100 different kites, or a new way of looking at the world through an experience they never related to before. Something.

      Part of the problem, I think, lies in our education system, which teaches people that writing is about self-expression, but forgets to mention that publishing isn’t. So yes, write your memoirs. Share them with those you love and know. That’s good. But I guess I don’t get why people think others would care unless they really were unique and groundbreaking people.

      And even then, we don’t need to know what they ate for breakfast. That’s what twitter’s for.

  • tanya.debuff says:

    I like Dinty Moore’s response on Brevity’s blog. Yeah, bad memoir sucks. So does bad fiction, bad poetry, and bad writing in general. I may not want to read about how your loved one died of cancer in real life, but I also don’t want to read about it in a novel or a poem. Novels and poetry, at their worst, are equally as bad as bad memoir. Attacking the whole genre makes him seem a tad overreactive.

  • Brett says:

    I have a problem with the last few lines of this article, in particular:

    “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. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.”

    While the author is right to contend that not all memoirists are capable of writing well enough to make their life interesting for the reader, it doesn’t follow that such lives are “undistinguished” because of this failure. It just means the memoirists can’t write well enough.

    That’s a big difference. Rather, I’d say that all lives are remarkable, but it takes a good memoirist to make it memorable. So while most folks won’t be able to convey their story, there’s always a good story (or stories) to be told.

    This seems to be the larger problem in memoir (and as other commentors mentioned–other genres). Subject matter shouldn’t enter into it. (After all, Pablo Neruda wrote some damn fine poems about some damn everyday subjects “Ode to My Socks” etc.)

  • adrianr says:

    What really makes me mad is Genzlinger’s slam on blogs.

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