Thursday, November 13, 2008

Beware the backlash...

Recently I've read several pieces of journalism, blog posts and emails cheering on the end of the 'misery-memoir'. I wonder about this, because, despite the fact that they are so easy to mock, the best-seller shelves in the airport bookshop were still heaving with 'the saddest story you'll read this year' the last time I looked.

Now, I'm not a big fan because I am concerned about the parts of me that find these books curiously addictive. Mostly I flick through in bookshops, looking at the back page blurb and then the end because it's the happy ending I want to read. The triumph over tragedy. But of course you don't get the triumph in these books without the pages and pages of tragedy before. Tragedy that's been expertly marketed.

A small child's face, a teddy bear and the hint of handkerchief seem to be the most popular images for the cover, although knees pay a large part too.

But here I go too.... easy easy to mock.

And that's why I say 'beware the backlash.' Because in dismissing the misery-memoir, many of the writers I've read have been lumping all memoirs into the same category.

As if writing about your own life results in a lesser book somehow than either fiction or biography.

Whereas I find sitting down with a well-crafted memoir such as Vivian Gornick's Fierce Attachments about her relationship with her mother, or The Bromley Boys: The True Story of Supporting the Worst Football Team in Britain by Dave Roberts (now there's a book you should read if you want to know something about pain!) about the most pleasurable reading experience I can have. These are expert books, well crafted and shaped. Often the structure the memoir writer chooses leaves me breathless with admiration because life, as we all know, isn't well shaped at all. Most of us haven't got a clue what's going on. (Well, OK, I'm speaking for myself here.)

In her book, The Situation and the Story - the art of personal narrative, Vivian Gornick writes about how you need to find a 'teller' even for your own story. A part of you, I suppose, that has a distinctive character, but is still engaged with and absorbed into the rest of you. Maureen Lipman described this perfectly on the radio last night when she was talking about the impetus of writing her book, Past Notes. She was telling an anecdote to a group of friends, she said, and watching them laugh, while at the same time thinking about whether this was right because she was also a grieving widow. Should widows make people laugh? It's the watching here that's important - the edge that makes her a successful writer. She's immensely interested in herself, as well as what's going on, and so - most of the time - we get interested too. In fact, most successful memoirs are written by expert watchers - was anyone more closely examined than David Sedaris by David Sedaris, for instance?

In an interview in the new Glimmer Train, Colum McCann discusses the differences between biographical fiction and biography. He says:

Ingmar Bergman said something along the lines that, 'Sometimes I must console myself with the notion that he who tells a lie loves the truth'. In a strange way, you're not talking about the absolute facts of somebody's life, but you're talking more about the texture and feel of somebody's life. ... In Dancer, I wanted to give the feeling that the reader was actually there, on the street with the person.

Now, there's a difference between memoir and biographical fiction but I think the 'texture and feel' is what I'm after in a memoir too. I want to be on the street with the writer, or at least the persona they're using to tell the story. With most misery-memoirs, I never feel I'm in the cellar or the forest - I'm looking in, poking the embers of the misery with a stick to get it to flare up again. And why shouldn't I? It's been packaged for me to do just that. There's a gloss to much of the writing that allows me to feel I'm safely behind glass and therefore don't have to do, feel, anything real.

Which just makes me think, all over again, how wonderful the best memoirs are, particularly when they make us cry real tears.


jem said...

Interesting post. There are so many of those book around now aren't there. I call them 'white covers' because that's what they usually have. I've read one or two, but sadly they all tend to blur, which seems an injustice to the individual but often misery alone isn't outstanding. It's the telling that differentiates.

It almost feels like life and its writability is measured on a misery scale. If you're not up there your life's not worth writing. I think I've had a real prejudice again all autobiographical writing for that very reason. I'm slowly challenging myself to write the odd scrap, and trying very hard to find a new approach, as far from those white covers as is possible.

P. A. Moed said...

Hi Sarah. Interesting post. I do agree that misery in itself has limited appeal. I too always look for those transcendent endings...which give meaning and purpose to the suffering and tragedy. If it's a case of "show-and-tell all" that's not enough for me. Vivian Gornick's memoir is a higher caliber. It was terrific.