WE DRIVE BY A CAR ACCIDENT and crane our necks. We want to see the worst: the mutilated passenger, the driver crumpled against the wheel. If a director suddenly appeared and shouted, "Cut!" — wouldn't we all feel a little disappointed? "It wasn't real," we'd say, "so it doesn't really matter." We want the truth, the more gruesome the better. We are transfixed by the image of a house blown over, crushing the inhabitants, or the spot of sidewalk where a little girl was shot, or a family photo of a father who raped and murdered twenty co-eds. We cannot get enough.
This is the tide all novelists swim against. Why would any reader choose to get their tragedy from fiction when there are so many stories of addiction, abuse, schizophrenia, widowhood, or dismemberment that really happened! Talk shows, radio hosts, and newspaper columnists are anxious to speak with the memoirist who has truly suffered. Forget the novelist who spent years researching a topic and creating a complex story and struggling to attain just the right perspective. There is nothing titillating there. Memoir is like the car accident; we experience a dollop of Schadenfreude with our measure of blood and guts. In our culture of endless self-reflection coupled with plausible deniability — my mother was crazy and my brother was handicapped and my father was gay and that's why I'm fat — the memoir reigns as queen of the genres. The more sordid the author's revelation, the better. In an interview with Sophie Roell at The Browser, Calvin Trillin agrees:
There's been an unfortunate atrocity race in memoirs in the United States. You're meant to reveal some hideous secret in your memoir if you expect it to go anywhere. Probably at least incest or bestiality or something like that.
And it's not enough to expose the dirt; the author has to have triumphed over it to become a better person, to find true love, to open a store that imports textiles from India. Women who are still being beaten by their husbands do not write memoirs. No, these are survivor stories: I endured this and now I have a house at the seaside. It is literature as catharsis, orchestrated by Oprah: publicly purge and find love, support, and success.
Of course, memoir has always been confessional. St. Augustine wrote the very first one in 398 AD and even titled it Confessions. He wrote, "The confession of evil works is the first beginning of good works." Of late it seems to be the first beginning of a lucrative career as an author. St. Augustine confessed his boyhood theft of a pear that he didn't want or need, a small act of thievery that preoccupied him his entire life. Today's memoirists mostly confess their family members' evil deeds. Their tales are not of mea culpa, but of damage done to them. The memoir has become largely victim literature.
Take pedophilia, arguably the most taboo of subjects. Amazon.com reports 242 results for "child sexual abuse memoirs." There are another 600 for general childhood abuse, many of which include some component of inappropriate sexual treatment overshadowed by other atrocities. Not one of these books is written by the abuser. It turns most readers' stoma...