Memoirs worth writing

Monday, January 31, 2011

In The New York Times Sunday Book Review this week, Neil Genzlinger decries the plethora of memoir flooding the book market, a trend he attributes to a cultural climate of “oversharing.” He writes:

These days, if you’re planning to browse the “memoir” listings on Amazon, make sure you’re in a comfortable chair, because that search term produces about 40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.

Sure, the resulting list has authors who would be memoir-eligible under the old rules. But they are lost in a sea of people you’ve never heard of, writing uninterestingly about the unexceptional, apparently not realizing how commonplace their little wrinkle is or how many other people have already written about it.

Genzlinger goes on to name names, recommending against three of the four memoirs he cites in the article. I agree with his conclusion, “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it.” A worthwhile memoir should have elements of personal essay, of exploration and revelation for the time-of-writing narrator. And a compelling voice and beauty of language can elevate even mundane or trivial life events.

Genzlinger does not explore our very real hunger for memoir. It seems to me that memory and history are critical to our need to make sense of our political and personal lives. But the reader will want to choose wisely.