The real deal

Even as the income and opportunity gap widens between the rich and the poor, the United States persists in seeing itself as solidly egalitarian, a country where everyone has an equal opportunity to be heard. That sentiment is nowhere more obvious than in the publishing world, where it seems that everybody's life story deserves at least a reading, if not a full-out marketing blitz and a movie deal. How else do you explain the explosion in the personal memoir? That explosion has made bestsellers out of literary writers (Mary Karr, Kathryn Harrison, Tobias Wolff), fashioned household names out of ordinary folk (Frank McCourt, Elizabeth Wurtzel, Edward Ball), and afforded the appearance of depth to vapid celebrities (Anne Heche, Lorna Luft). It has also loosed on an unsuspecting nation a torrent of bad writing, narcissistic self-indulgence, and the terrifying notion that everyone has a book within him- or herself.

Where does all of this wrongheaded egalitarianism come from? Surprisingly enough, says Rebecca Hogan, professor of English and women's studies at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, it's not an American idea at all. We inherited it from the Brits.

According to Hogan, 18th-century readers enjoyed the memoirs of those who played witness to historical events such as the French Revolution. But in the 19th century, the Victorians became interested in "moral instruction," and memoirs became an opportunity for readers to examine how one should live. By closely following the events of another's life, readers could receive instruction as to what a good choice might be and watch with horror or self-satisfaction as bad choices led to ruin.

The thirst for this sort of instruction carries over to American culture, Hogan says: Readers prefer "experiences that are like our own" over celebrity or political biographies. In practice, personal memoirs constitute yet another component of the burgeoning self-help movement: "The idea [is] that a personal experience can tell us something that more abstract thinking can't," Hogan says.

Sure enough — that's the same belief that powers quality fiction. Why read a handbook on dealing with personal loss when you can experience it vicariously through Sophie's Choice? But memoir offers something even the best fiction cannot: a claim to veracity. That claim, what French intellectual Philippe Lejeune called "the autobiographical pact," embodies the long-held and much-cherished belief that nonfiction is truth.

But that claim has lost its power of late. Experimental writing that pushes the boundaries of the form and scandals resulting from outright lies in famous résumés (such as the flap surrounding historian Joseph Ellis) have shaken our certainty of what constitutes one's true life story. Of the genres that purport to tell life stories, memoir seems particularly suited to writerly invention. (As a very general definition, consider a biography to be a reported version of another's life, an autobiography to be a reported version of one's own life, and a memoir to be an impressionistic account of a specific time in one's own life.)

Writer David Shields, whose upcoming seventh book is titled Enough About You: Adventures in Autobiography (Simon & Schuster), believes that readers are naive to expect that a memoir is truth.

"People read memoirs of somebody's childhood from 40 years ago, with all sorts of quoted dialogue — that's ridiculous," Shields says. "Memory itself is a dream machine. The moment you start to remember what happened yesterday, you're going to compress."

But Shields doesn't believe that a lack of veracity is a shortcoming of the form; his standards have more to do with a writer's message than his or her material. "I'm really loyal to the emotional investigation — that's what I care about," he says. "When I read serious, literary, ambitious nonfiction, what I care about is how deeply the writer is going into human nature."

He even states a preference for memoirs that make boasts about their dishonesty, such as Lauren Slater's Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir. Shields considers such postmodern experiments to be an interesting alternative to the straightforward memoirs that cluttered the bestseller lists in the late '80s and early '90s.

"A lot of the reason that most people read is to enter a dreamscape," he says, citing Mary Karr's The Liar's Club, Susanna Kaysen's Girl, Interrupted, and Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life as nonfiction narratives that provided such an escape. "[People were] reading these books as cautionary tales, [reading] from a middle-class point of view: 'The writer survived this horrible childhood and lived to write this book.'

"I think we're in a different literary or psychological space now. I don't find that those narratives are what I want to read now — we've become self-conscious about that kind of book. The work that is carrying the most emotional and psychic power is work that is more confused and willing to wear its confusion on its sleeves." Shields cites recent books by Slater, David Eggers (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), and Lorrie Moore, whose award-winning short story "People Like That Are the Only People Here" blurred the line between fiction and memoir.

Does the average reader share Shields' intellectual curiosity? In a country where John Grisham's lawyer novels still lead the bestseller lists, it seems unlikely. And if, as Hogan asserts, readers are turning to memoir as self-help rather than literature, they're probably frustrated to learn that the life techniques described in a memoir haven't actually been tested in real life.

But moral instruction is only one of the many reasons we love personal stories. Penny Tschantz, a University of Tennessee English instructor who specializes in diaries as literature, believes that there's a voyeuristic appeal to reading an account of personal experiences and private thoughts. But even that pleasure is being lost as our culture wallows in the self-consciousness that fuels so much personal writing.

Tschantz blames some of that phenomenon on the commercial success of diarists such as Anaïs Nin, and on commercial enterprises that host workshops on how to keep a journal and market readymade notebooks with dividers that allow diarists to follow the prescribed techniques. Such self-consciousness is evident in the writing, Tschantz says, as in the case of the diaries of essayist May Sarton.

"She knew she was going to have contracts [for the books] as soon as she finished a journal. You can tell as you read them, they don't ring as true," Tschantz says. "Sarton seems to be aware of other readers, even though she goes through a lot of self-questioning."

Sarton was hardly alone in that awareness — in fact, one might argue, she was ahead of her time. (She died in 1995.) We're living in a fantastically self-conscious time, one in which children encounter every life experience with a camcorder whirring in the background. We live in a country full of people desperate to get onto television "reality" shows so that they can live lives that in no way resemble their own.

And that self-consciousness, more than anything, may explain the popularity of memoirs, both in the writing and the reading. We're desperate for something real. Thanks to technology, we have more opportunities than ever to establish genuine connections with one another, but we're less likely than ever to be genuine with one another. But we still believe in the possibility. And so we imagine that every memoir on the shelf is a chance to get inside another person's experience, another person's mind, and discover something genuine.

Eileen Murphy writes for City Paper, where the origianl version of this feature appeared. Send comments to
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