The memoir-novel–or the novel-memoir?

What accounts for our current—or recurrent—fascination with memoir-novels? That’s the question posed in the NYT “Bookends” feature of December 23.

Two very good writers take it on: Leslie Jamison (of The Empathy Exams) and Daniel Mendelsohn (essayist, book reviewer, memoirist). Their points are interesting, Mendelsohn’s perhaps a little more than Jamison’s if you’re looking for an answer to the posed question, since he addresses the issue more directly.

Both Jamison and Mendelsohn write about the memoir-novel from the reader’s point of view. Jamison says, for instance, in an analysis of Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, “We feel ourselves subject to the opaque terms of an authorial presence that refuses to neatly categorize its offering: We are, at once, deeply immersed in the Icy North, its extreme exposures, and deeply aware of the hands that built it for us.” Reader’s POV.

Mendelsohn writes, in dissecting the slippage between memoir and fiction, “What’s interesting is how many readers, judging by the online reviews, weren’t all that bothered by the literary frauds perpetrated by [James] Frey and others: They came for ‘redemption’ and they got it, even if it turned out to have been provided by fiction rather than fact.” Reader’s POV.

Either Mendelsohn or Jamison could easily have discussed the memoir-novel from the author’s point of view, but that was not the question with which they were charged. They did their jobs; now I’m thinking about my job, which happens to be writing a memoir-novel. Or—more accurately—a novel-memoir.

It is not splitting hairs to reverse the order of the terminology. At least, not in my own case.

There are writers who quite deliberately translate memoir into thinly-veiled fiction, and there are legitimate, even good, reasons for doing this: taking a small step back from reality may allow more clarity of thinking; it may also give the writer the freedom to adjust history a bit, for whatever personal requirement—reconciliation, perhaps, or even fear of lawsuits.

The difference between a memoir-novel and a novel-memoir is this: in a novel-memoir, the claims of novelistic thinking come first. A novel-memoir, no matter how closely it is or isn’t based on a “true” story, must work first as a novel. If you have a “true” story to tell in fiction and you cling to the “truth” instead of thinking like a novelist, you may find yourself sacrificing good writing to the demands of your own psychological needs.

Too rigorous? Then don’t write a novel-memoir; write, instead, a memoir-novel, in which you will more easily be able to justify clinging to what (you think) actually happened. You will more easily allow yourself to maintain loyalty to the “truth,” rather than loyalty to good writing. You will not think first like a novelist; you’ll think first like a memoirist.

Of course, if you do that you may risk losing narrative steam, arc, good dialogue, action, depth, breadth, and a dozen other novelistic options. On the other hand, you may feel better about the story you’re telling; you may feel you’re conveying the “truth” with more integrity.

But the novelist’s responsibility is to the novel.

On a small scale, this injunction to think like a novelist brings us back to that annoying “kill off your darlings” concept. Annoying because the phrase is used both to intimidate and chasten writers, when all it really means is that a writer does well to consider the design of her entire novel rather than become attached to small baubles that shine for only a moment and do not add to its overall quality. If the “darling” works, fine; if not, let it go.

So on a larger scale, if a memoiristic point enhances your novel, fine. If not, let it go.

This is what I think each day when I work on my novel: What actually happened was traumatic enough for one person to live through, and writing about it has not so much helped me as given me permission to stay with it and relive it as much as I need to. But when that phase is over, then novel-making must begin in earnest. I must take myself in hand and rethink all the parts that wallow in memoir and undermine the novel.

Writing a novel is a matter of artistry, not therapy. The creation of a novel-memoir may have to pass through a stage in which the therapeutic outweighs the artistry; it may, in the end, coincidentally, be therapeutic. Yet (with rare exceptions) a good novel-memoir transcends that private state of self-healing and expands enough to include the reader.

Questioning is the primary lesson I’ve learned—am still learning—while trying to nail this novel-memoir. That was not how I started out: I started out by spilling my guts onto the pages. When I’d had enough of that, I tried—am still trying—to be my own reader for as long as it takes to get to a complete first draft. It’s edifying. And it’s not even that difficult.

Disconnect just enough to read the pages as if you were someone else. Not a hostile someone else, not your partner or your mother, not the New York Times reviewer, not a reader who’d never in a million years buy your book or take your book out of the library. Think of a reader much like yourself, with the same expectations of fiction that you have, and read through her eyes. Let yourself know when your novel-memoir has turned in on itself and become, mistakenly, memoir-novel. Then fix it.

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FYI / Independent Bookstores from Coast to Coast

Saturn Booksellers, Gaylord, MI

The Novel Neighbor, Webster Groves, MO

Orca Books, Olympia, WA

 

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