What’s the Story #55

Memoirs are far more than lurid, navel-gazing tell-alls

Robert Atwan’s “Between the Lines” column in this issue begins with his observation that memoirs have typically attracted negative criticism for two reasons: an author’s truthfulness and the extent of his or her self-absorption. 

The first issue is, of course, a concern; the genre suffers when writers like James Frey fail to control urges to exaggerate or get carried away with Walter Mitty-like imaginings. But, the second point—the memoirist’s narcissistic penchant to tell all, no matter how revealing or embarrassing or even hurtful to others—seems to be less of an issue now than it was in the mid-’90s, when memoir enjoyed a spike in popularity.

Back then, privacy was precious—or so the critics believed. (Remember when there were literary critics? And book reviewers in all the major papers?) Kathryn Harrison’s 1997 memoir, The Kiss, was considered scandalous because it was so revealing. Here was a married woman, the mother of two young children, detailing the affair she had as a twenty-year-old with her Presbyterian minister father. Jonathan Yardley of The Washington Post deemed it “slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical.” James Wolcott, writing in the New Republic and wearing his psychotherapist’s hat, concluded Harrison “intended to invite misery and humiliation upon her children . . . as misery was invited on her.”

Around the same time, in Vanity Fair, Wolcott worried that creative writing and creative nonfiction (by which he meant, really, memoir) would “form a big, earnest blob of me-first sensibility.” Too many writers writing about themselves and their problems. Harrumph.

Also in 1997, Creative Nonfiction, then a traditional literary journal, published our first memoir issue—rather “Mostly Memoir,” for there were two or three pieces that were what was then called new or literary journalism. This was actually a rather daring move back then, considering the public criticism of the form. Remember: Creative Nonfiction was just eight issues old—and pioneering not only a new literary journal but an entire genre, which was just at its tipping point.

Almost twenty years later, we live in the world of online data and social media and reality TV. For better and worse, our notions of privacy are changing. And memoir has proven it’s here to stay.

Creative Nonfiction has published literally hundreds of memoirs in the nearly fifty issues since that 1997 “Mostly Memoir” issue—but this is the first in which only memoir is featured and celebrated. You’ll notice this issue is bigger than usual: we received more than 1,700 submissions in response to our call for short memoirs, and so many of them were wonderful that we had to publish more than usual—resulting in an issue that, we hope, illustrates the rich possibilities of the form.

Memoirs are far more than lurid, navel-gazing tell-alls; they are thoughtful, heartfelt, often surprising stories about people who travel, grapple with identity, fight addiction, endure disease and death, achieve satisfaction, experience grief, and attempt seemingly impossible feats. Memoir captures real life and tells us more about what it is to be human. That is why we continue to read and write memoirs, and why they have become an integral part of the literary landscape. And you don’t have to take my word for it: ask James Wolcott, who published his own memoir in 2009.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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