I was struck by Neil Genzlinger's purposely-provocative dismissal of recent memoirs in the NYT book review: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/books/review/Genzlinger-t.html?pagewanted=all In it, he savages three out of four recent memoirs, claiming that "this flood just has to be stopped."
Although he grudgingly admits that “brilliant writing” can make ordinary lives readable, he doesn’t criticize the memoirs for the quality of their prose, nor does he expose them as presenting false facts à la James Frey. What Genzlinger focuses on is the subjects themselves; his review judges their lives "unremarkable" and shames them for their presumption in writing about themselves. Like an angry Goldilocks, he criticizes the first memoir for being too average, the second for being too self-pitying, and the third because the author's family institutionalized their autistic daughter instead of raising her -- a choice I find myself in no position to judge, but even if I find it distressing, it is certainly not in itself disqualifying. Only the last memoir --in which the writer "ma[de] herself the least important character" was positively reviewed. Is it just me, or does it seem a bit extreme to insist that memoirs are only publishable when not about the authors?
To be honest, I have not yet read the memoirs Genzlinger reviewed. Perhaps they are the waste of trees that he claims them to be. But I'm uncomfortable dismissing certain lives as unworthy of being narrated, or of assuming specific subjects aren’t interesting.
When I taught a class using The New Yorker magazine as the textbook, one of the biggest surprises for my students was that almost any subject is fascinating if the article is well-written. I used the example of Jane Kramer’s excellent essay about foxhunting -- not a subject I find particularly riveting, and one I would have ignored if I hadn't been teaching the entire contents of the magazine. The article, however, was brilliant, insightful and quite mesmerizing.
Even the trivial can be wildly insightful and entertaining, as anyone who reads David Sedaris knows. One of my favorite contemporary writers is blogger Heather Armstrong not because she is a mom, nor because she's an ex-Mormon (although both are mildly interesting to me): I read her blog because she's a great writer. And while years ago she wrote about her severe post-partum depression, that dramatic event is rarely mentioned these days. Instead she chronicles her children's lives, her family's adventures buying a new home, the joys of owning an Xbox Kinect, and her relatively happy marriage -- typical stuff about an ordinary person. Except that she possesses that rare gift of seeming utterly authentic. And she’s funny — which is harder than it looks.
I guess when it comes down to it, I agree with Virginia Woolf, who stated, in A Room of One’s Own, “And there is the girl behind the counter too – I would as soon have her true history as the hundred and fiftieth life of Napoleon.”