You get no credit for the living.

A good post over at Writing is My Drink, about what makes a good memoir.  I admit I’ve been guilty of generalizing about modern memoir as a genre, from time to time–and I think the thing that bothers me about some memoirs I’ve read is in part what’s touched on here:  books that narrate event rather than story.  More pithily, from Claire Dederer:

Thinking the event is the story is the biggest mistake of student writers.  The transformation of the self is the story.

I’ve been finishing Black Boy, by Richard Wright.  It’s a memoir (or, as they said back in the day when it was published, an “autobiography”) of growing up black in Mississippi in the early twentieth century.  It’s serious stuff, and it’s beautifully written.  It’s sort of staggering, really, that he writes with such elegance and restraint and emotion and insight.  It’s rare for anyone to write like that, but someone who grew up half-starved, emotionally stunted, in an atmosphere of constant scarcity, abuse, and tension?  And somehow he writes about his life, and his emotional and mental development, in a way that a privileged twenty-first-century white Canadian woman can feel and understand deeply.

So, obviously I don’t dislike memoir as a genre.  And honestly I never thought I did.  I’ve read many autobiographies, memoirs, and travel narratives, and loved them.  The ones I loved most not only had something substantial to say about a certain time, places, and experience of the world–but they said it artfully.  And honestly, if someone says something artfully, with magic and style, then that’s their substance right there.  Event–or lack of it–doesn’t matter.

A random assortment of memoirs I have loved.

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One response to “You get no credit for the living.

  1. Interesting! I would never have said I dislike autobiography, viz. Black Boy (or My Dog Tulip, for instance!) but there’s a pretension and self-aggrandisement that I associate with memoir that makes me reject the genre in an admittedly knee-jerk fashion. I think the ones that are the vogue right now (and yes, this makes me sound like an old lady) do tend to celebrate the event (and usually that event is, say, a heroin overdose, or an experience of sexual abuse, etc.) rather than what one of my college profs used to call the “so what.” Thanks for the link, I’ll take a look this weekend.

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