Memoir begins not with event but with the intuition of meaning — with the mysterious fact that life can sometimes step free from the chaos of contingency and become story.
—Sven Birkerts, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Now
THE FIRST CREATIVE WRITING CLASS I ever took, on the second floor of a mousy old building on Piano Row off Boston Common, was an introduction to Creative Nonfiction. The teacher, a young MFA grad, I found to be a lovely and warm resource who handed out copies of meaningful essays by famous essayists and encouraged us to read aloud our god-awful in-class exercises — maintaining her composure as one-by-one we read (or shyly passed on reading) about our first memories or a physical description of someone we loved.
She was a good teacher, but a curious quirk was her pronunciation of a word that came up frequently. I should have paid more attention to the graceful generosity she extended to her students because I am sure that I made a face or cocked a theatrically subtle head tilt whenever discussion turned to "mem-wah," which, as you might imagine, was often. This pronunciation seemed not to fit with the rest of her general down-to-earthness. It was a baffling and bizarre affectation that I could in no way account for. What's more, nobody else seemed affected by this affectation. Or maybe they were, but were polite enough to keep their eyebrow-raising and lip-pursing to themselves. As the weeks passed, I took the serious things she had to say about writing less seriously.
Pretention runs parallel to the absurd; the one needs the other, after all. When years later I took the Chinatown bus, the Fung Wah (almost rhymes with "mem-wah"), between Boston and New York for the last time, preparing for a move, I brought with me the notebook I used in her class, which I still consult, and the unconscious association between the whole genre and silly, stupid pomp.
Such remains the reputation of the memoir. (Or the me-moir.) Critics rip apart the conceit with more lust than goes into panning a Harlequin (probably even the act of bodice-ripping itself). Perennially gauche, the fad in critical bullying over the last year has been to bash freely — like when the NPR headline touted a few wonderful memoirs as ones that "won't make you slit your wrists." The memoir could be defined as autobiography that uses fictional, novelistic devices. But even that handy rule of thumb ranks fiction above all else, placing nonfiction leagues below. Maybe it is better to say that memoir is autobiography that relies less on chronology and more on good writing, which, in order to be aptly labeled, usually has to be seen — kind of like pornography. Randall Jarrell once said that a novel is "a prose narrative of some length that has something wrong with it." Well, there are some critics who might define a memoir as a prose narrative of some length that has everything wrong with it.
The New York Times critic Neil Genzlinger would probably be one of them. He got the ball rolling in an essay that came out in 2011, "The Problem With Memoirs," nobly calling for a moment of silence for "the lost art of shutting up" with all the dignity that typically accompanies snark. Genzlinger mourned for the time when only the famous had "earned" any kind of reflective autobiographical writing. (When this was, I have yet to figure out. Who was Frank Conro...read more