Bottoming Out Memoirs
I am not done weighing in about memoirs. While hiking on a neighbor’s land, it came to me that to create emotional resonance in a reader is a lot harder for a fiction-writer. Why?
Because the reader comes to a novel with no expectations, a blank slate, and it’s for the writer to create an entirely believable world that draws them in. Not so memoir. The reader naturally believes that what lies ahead in memoir-land has already happened and that the writer was compelled to sit down and recount it. Wouldn’t that leave this reader more sympathetic and sensitive to the unvarnished narrative, itself? To convince a reader that the world within the novel actually exists requires artful lying. In fiction you have to lie to tell the truth. In memoir you just have to tell the truth.
So the advantage for any fiction writer is the tool of imagination as opposed to the memoirist’s tool of intimate recall. Arguably it’s a lot harder to imagine than to merely remember. Maybe this is why so many people trying unsuccessfully to market autobiographical fiction, go back to the drawing board for a few weeks and then churn out a salable memoir. The most egregious example of this is James Frey who had lots of turndowns for a novel that he converted into a memoir and sold instantly. And even after he was busted for inventing reality, he still kept selling lots of books. Controversy, after all, has always been good for commerce.
How many writers who start out as memoirists end up as successful novelists? Few in my opinion. But how many successful novelists end up as successful memoirists? A much higher number. Vladamir Nabokov comes instantly to mind.
And then of course there is the question of subject matter. There seems to be a lot of memoirs out there by privileged (often affluent) people: recalling a dysfunctional or fractured childhood; a struggle with drugs and alcohol; a spiritual or moral crisis. These books begin to resemble one another after a while. They proliferate mostly because there is a public eager to read them. This public jonses for sequels and public appearances and unwittingly anoint authors of cautionary tales as the pundits of bottoming out and finding redemption. Theses writers end up on the road talking about their rehabilitation or their spiritual revelations and often get paid handsomely for their appearances.
One might conclude that the lure of reality T.V. has invaded book publishing. Like a T.V. viewer, the reader probably keeps lower standards for true story entertainment than they do for something like a higher brow series that might play on HBO.
But if you’re somebody like Nabokov who, in my opinion, has written the gold standard of memoir — Speak, Memory — you have the added blessing of being a synesthesiac with a photographic memory. This is a hard combination to beat. Short of invention, the only way any memoirist has to distinguish themselves is the level of writing that deepens the portrayal of their life story. That is unless they make up their life story, which probably happens more often than any of us realize.