What’s the Story #73

“Memoirists must think long and hard about the stories they write and the people their stories might affect”

I originally wrote this intro back in late February, as we were preparing to go to press with our spring issue—this issue. Then, COVID-19 suddenly changed—paralyzed—our country. For a number of weeks, we did not know when or if we could continue publishing. Thankfully, Creative Nonfiction has received help from the CARES Act, local foundations, and, most significantly, our readers and students. And now, with this issue, we are back in business, so to speak, and we plan to resume our regular quarterly publishing schedule. 

Last summer, in a generous spread in the Arts section, the New York Times announced its critics’ selection of the fifty best memoirs of the past fifty years. There was no news peg—nothing that had transpired in the publishing world that seemed to precipitate such coverage and analysis—but Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal, and Jennifer Szalai described their choices in glowing detail. 

The first twenty-five memoirs were ordered from the best on down, and the rest were listed alphabetically by author. In theory, the list went back all the way to 1969, although the oldest of the selections were actually published in 1974: All God’s Dangers: The Life of Nate Shaw, by Theodore Rosengarten (#12), and Conundrum, by Jan Morris (#18). 

Although I might quibble with some of the selections, many were on the mark, as far as I am concerned, like The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr (#4), A Childhood by Harry Crews (#9), Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (#10), This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff (#15), and Country Girl by Edna O’Brien (#23). Some of my personal favorites were relegated to the second tier, like Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking, Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, and Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt. And there were, I thought, one or two missing, most significantly Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story. But there have been many thousands of memoirs published over the past half century, and we all have our favorites, those stories and authors who greatly affected and inspired us. In fact, if the Times had gone back one more year, to 1968, I would have been complaining if they had not included A Fan’s Notes by Fred Exley, a book I have read a half dozen times over the years. I am sure you also have your own top fifty, and they would be a lot different than mine—or those on the Times’s list.

Quibbles aside, the list absolutely delighted me because it captured the transformation in how critics have come to evaluate and value personal histories. It was such a contrast to the way in which memoir has been criticized and lambasted through the years, especially around the middle 1990s, when “the memoir explosion” triggered a string of unfair and unnecessarily nasty assaults.  

1997 was an especially fierce year. That April, Ellen Goodman, writing in the Washington Post, theorized that the reason memoirs had been so recently successful was that they were easier than fiction to publish and promote because it was “easier to put an author on tour than a main character.” A week earlier, culture critic James Wolcott had published an article in the New Republic, complaining that while it was once difficult to get someone to admit their secrets, “[n]ow the problem is the opposite: getting people to put a cork in it.” And with so many new memoirs being published about addiction, disease, abuse, childhood trauma, etc., Wolcott concluded, “we’re approaching saturation agony overload.” 

Later that year, Wolcott continued his tirade in Vanity Fair and brought all of creative nonfiction into the fray, calling the genre a “sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction. Creative (fiction) writing and creative nonfiction are coming together, I fear, to form a big, earnest blob of me-first sensibility.” He referred to me as a “human octopus” and “the godfather” behind the genre and criticized this magazine for publishing it. Not too long after that, writing in the Hartford Courant, Jocelyn McClurg wondered whether it was time for the era of literary confession to end. 

To be fair, some criticism was precipitated to a certain extent by memoirists who may not have been true to the form itself—or to their own stories. Ellen Goodman’s article was initiated by the revelation that Wanda Koolmatrie, the supposed “urban Aboriginal girl,” author of My Own Sweet Time, was actually a forty-seven-year-old white man named Leon Carmen. And Wolcott’s New Republic article was ostensibly a review of The Kiss, about Kathryn Harrison’s affair with her father in her early twenties. Wolcott disapproved, labeling her a consenting adult as opposed to an abused victim. He suggested that she wrote this book for the money and recognition and accused her, because of the sordid content, of harming her children and invading their privacy.

Whatever one thinks of The Kiss, it goes without saying that memoirists must think long and hard about the stories they write and the people their stories might affect—not just to safeguard characters (or even people who don’t appear on the page) who might be considered innocent victims, but also to protect themselves.

Even Vivian Gornick, the author of Fierce Attachments—the Times’s number one selection, the best memoir of the past fifty years—faced an unexpected avalanche of criticism sixteen years after her book was published when in 2003 she told a group of students at Goucher College during a Q-and-A session that she had altered chronology and “composed” some of the scenes in the book. In one instance, according to one of the students in attendance, she said that she had invented a scene involving an incident between her mother and a street person. 

The encounter between Gornick and the students was reported in detail a few days later in Salon by a writer who had witnessed the session, and not too many days after that was rehashed by National Public Radio’s book critic Maureen Corrigan on a segment of Fresh Air. Gornick herself disputed the interpretation of her remarks (and of course “composed” could mean any number of things), but the debate continued off and on for a few more years before it died down. 

Today, there’s still—there will always be—criticism, but memoir has clearly come into its own as a subgenre of creative nonfiction. After all, even James Wolcott, in 2011, gave in and wrote his own memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. And recently, I am very pleased to announce, he joined the editorial advisory board of this magazine.

In fact, if you were looking for evidence of how popular memoir has become, I can tell you that we received more than 1,500 submissions for this issue. In a perfect world, we would have space to publish our fifty favorites, but since we don’t, we’ve chosen seven that seem to us to exemplify the genre, written by writers trying to make sense of their personal stories and eager to share their experiences with others.

Thankfully, although the trauma of COVID-19 has changed many things, in ways we can’t even yet understand, I don’t think it has in any way diminished the merit or vivid insight of these pieces. What I do expect will change because of the pandemic, however, is the personal histories we will receive and publish. Memoir and personal essays will help us capture this era of sadness, panic, togetherness, and—I fervently hope—recovery, and will solidify the value and vital importance of dramatic personal histories, in an unforgettable and unprecedented way. Just wait. And meanwhile, enjoy this terrific issue.

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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