Thanks to Sam L’s post a week or so ago, we had our own discussion here on Bark about Neil Genzlinger’s New York Times article critizising memoirs. Since then, I’ve followed the buzz online about the article, mulling over my own response and defense of why I love the memoir genre.
Then this Monday, Brevity’s managing editor and Ph.D candidate in non-fiction at Ohio University Liz Stephens said everything I wanted to say and more. And did it much more eloquently than I ever could:
I will always be mired in the everyday. Still, my quotidian life fascinates me so much that I want to know what others make of it as well, of their train rides, their errands through the streets, their awkward exchanges with daughters….Every big moment is only, it seems to me, while you’re feeling it, small moments stacked up.
And then she said a lot more great stuff, and then she got to this:
Nevertheless, am I interested in all the memoirs out today? Heck no. Some of them I think are not worth the paper they’re printed on. Let’s be honest, you think it too. But what supreme elitism to suppose those might not speak to other readers. The fact that I turn my nose up at some memoir I consider a matter of personal taste, and certainly while my brand of “taste” has been validated by a sort of educated cultural elite, only extreme myopia would lead me to think no other “taste” might be considered worse or better.
Then she backed up her opinions with some great research and listed a bunch of brilliant memoirs, and then she wrote this:
…but if I find that book, a book written in a style I don’t like, about a subject I think is vapid, I’ll just leave it on the shelf. For someone else. Because someone else may want that, may be so unconscious of themselves that to see their life reflected back, in a tone they don’t find distancing, could [be] a game-changer. And if none of us think a book has worth, and we all leave it on the shelf, well, that’ll be its own reward, won’t it?
And then she added this brilliant ending:
What does this fecund memoir rush in publishing tells us about ourselves as a culture? Is this the answer Genzlinger fears? I think it tells us something we shouldn’t worry about: we’re having a conversation with each other in the best way we can, since we may never meet….we’re listening to each other, for all the wrong and right reasons we always have: prurient curiosity, absolution, confirmation, snarkiness, grace, boredom, community, joy.
Yeah, what Liz said! Take that Genzlinger!