Paul Theroux
March 16, 2011 11:16 AM   Subscribe

Funny, this was in the NYTimes the other day: The Problem With Memoirs.
posted by hermitosis at 11:22 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

hermitosis - interesting. The FPP link notes:
The examples of American effort at exhaustive autobiography—as opposed to the selective memoir—tend to be rare and unrevealing, though Kay Boyle, Eudora Welty and Mary McCarthy all wrote exceptional memoirs.
And later on that page:
The memoir is typically thinner, provisional, more selective than the confession, undemanding, even casual, and suggests that it is something less than the whole truth.
Fittingly, The Problem with Memoirs is a much shorter piece; it's a guideline consisting of four points, instead of the rambling comparison of all the ways one could craft an autobiography.
posted by filthy light thief at 11:34 AM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

I've been addicted to biographies and autobiographies lately. Thanks for the post, puny human!
posted by hermitosis at 11:39 AM on March 16, 2011

Everyone realizes that one can believe little of what people say about each other,” Rebecca West once wrote. “But it is not so widely realized that even less can one trust what people say about themselves.

Yeah, that.
posted by Glinn at 11:40 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

snarky tl;dr: fiction writers not especially interested in writing nonfiction, esp about selves.
posted by epersonae at 11:41 AM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Well of course an autobiography has limitations. An autobiography that sticks to a strict recounting of events would be extremely dull, no matter how exciting the actual events might have been. The value of an autobiography comes from the author's personal reflection and commentary, which inherently involves subjective decisions about meaning and importance. Those decisions come from a fixed point in time, and reveal more about the author's outlook at the time of writing than it does his actual thoughts and emotions when he stole his first kiss under the bleachers during the big homecoming game. In that respect, there's very little difference between an autobiography and a memoir except for length and scope (and, according to Theroux, the idea that memoirs are more upfront about not being the "whole truth").

Anybody who reads an autobiography hoping to gain a full picture of the author's identity isn't doing it right. All an autobiography can tell you is how the author wishes to present himself to the world. But reading the narrative framework that the author crafts for himself is extremely interesting and valuable material in and of itself. That, I think, can give you at least one essential element of the author; maybe even a glimpse into something he didn't intend for you to see.

Theroux's complaints about autobiography are mostly just complaints about the limitations of history. But just because you can't write the whole truth about something doesn't mean it's not a worthy exercise. The real problem comes with buying into the false idea that it is the truth.
posted by lilac girl at 12:03 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Autobiography and memoir are significantly different.

Memoir is a creative work of the imagination, that is framed very tightly and usually covers a very specific aspect or state of mind or time period.

It is fully literature, as much as any work of creative fiction.

This from the Times article linked by Hermatosis above, goes to the heart of literary memoir (emphasis mine):
“We all felt the force of her thrift,” she writes of her grandmother. “Her presents were always received apprehensively: what were we not going to be pleased to get this time? I remember T-shirts much too small for me, and you knew from the smell of them that they had been in my grandparents’ house for a long time (in fact they smelled as if they had been stored in an ashtray). A book that looked as if it had been read. A bottle not quite full of bath foam.”

This fascinating couple, who had survived the Holocaust and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, come slowly into focus for the author and the reader simultaneously, or so Adorjan (the author) makes it seem. That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.

Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key....

I would go even further and say that there's a transformation in the writer that allows a reader to gain insight into his or her life and yeah, it should give something and be a good story with all the tools employed in fiction and even poetry, at it's disposal.
posted by Skygazer at 12:22 PM on March 16, 2011

I was going to write my autobiography, but got as far as the opening line
I have lived an unremarkable life and ended up a boring middle-aged man; my roots are a lazy douchiness mixed with a bit of assholery so tepid as to be unnoticeable--and nowhere near enough womanizing or scandal.

Before I had to stop and get a drink.
posted by maxwelton at 1:03 PM on March 16, 2011

This is an interesting argument coming from the author of "My Secret History", a semi-autobiography disguised as a novel, and "My Other Life", a novel disguised as a semi-autobiography. Perhaps the real reason he has no interest in writing an autobiography is that he's already spent enough time playing with that story.
posted by Mars Saxman at 2:10 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

I refute him thus: [kicks Nabokov's "Speak Memory"].
posted by Faze at 2:33 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

It's scary and fantastic how many works of fiction are more or less the damned truth.

It's like you can look right into someone's brain or soul, without either party feeling icky about it.
posted by Skygazer at 2:53 PM on March 16, 2011

French grumpiness:

“Do it comme ils faut,” was my father’s frequent demand.

Comme il faut. (À qui sont les Chiefs)

A frequent Quebecois exclamation “Plaqueteur!,” meaning “fusser,” is such an antique word it is not found in most French dictionaries

He probably means placoteur.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:00 PM on March 16, 2011 [2 favorites]

He probably means placoteur.

In all fairness, placoteur is not exactly common either; my 2400-page Collins/Robert is innocent of it.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 3:14 PM on March 16, 2011

Perhaps apropos, an interview with Robert Caro in 2009. Caro is famous for his 3-volume (so far) biography of LBJ.

""I am trying to make clear through my writing something which I believe: that biography—history in general—can be literature in the deepest and highest sense of that term. Whether I am succeeding at that I don't know—and I suppose nobody will know for many years, because the test of whether something is literature is whether it endures for a long time."
posted by Bourbonesque at 3:15 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

Over the years I have been accused of injecting myself into the little bits of fiction I used to fling at kuro5hin as this or that character. In fact, I have never written myself into a story, and I find it weird that anyone would think I had; am I supposed to be the misguided genius whose creation destroys the Universe (twice!) or the loser who becomes so immortal he forgets he was once human? Nevertheless, this has left some people with the impression that I am some kind of ferocious pervert genius who will sic murderous robots on you so that I can fuck your dog and eat your kids, or vice-versa.

It would probably disappoint the handful of people who are likely to remember me to tell them the boring truth.
posted by localroger at 3:40 PM on March 16, 2011

INDEED. I daresay I shan't write an autobiography, though it pains me to deprive the world of such a pleasure; nor shall I grace any of the many, many people who are certain to want to write my biography with any assistance in the matter. *sniff*
posted by koeselitz at 3:43 PM on March 16, 2011 [1 favorite]

snarky tl;dr: fiction writers not especially interested in writing nonfiction, esp about selves.

Apparently you truly dr; Thoroux's whole point is that autobiographies are not true enough.

I was going to write my autobiography, but got as far as the opening line I have lived an unremarkable life and ended up a boring middle-aged man...Before I had to stop and get a drink.

Got you covered, mate. quite a good book, actually.
posted by Diablevert at 4:31 PM on March 16, 2011

I have to say, the thing that stops me from writing anything completely honestly, in those moments I've had a transient mania for journaling or memoir, is far less trying to make myself look better and far more fearing to reveal all the unflattering things I know about other people, especially family.
posted by Nixy at 6:18 PM on March 16, 2011


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