Home page > Writing and publishing in Africa > What Accounts for Our Current — or Recurrent — Fascination With (...)
| More

What Accounts for Our Current — or Recurrent — Fascination With Memoir-Novels?

Wednesday 31 December 2014

DEC. 23, 2014

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Leslie Jamison and Daniel Mendelsohn discuss our interest in narratives that blur the line between the real and the fabricated.

By Leslie Jamison

Why do we like that space of uncertainty in which we don’t know what’s been invented and what hasn’t?

In May of 1856, a traveling panorama called “Arctic Regions!” arrived in Philadelphia, offering “a complete voyage from New York to the North Pole.” Posters bragged that it was “fresh from the hands” of a “great Master of American Artists” and could “transport us to the icy North,” promising a kind of paradox: that you could become aware of its artistic mastery by forgetting it was art at all.

This brings to mind a certain tension in how we read, as well, a dynamic David Shields has described in his relationship to autobiographical writing: “at once desperate for authenticity and in love with artifice.” There’s an electric charge in toggling back and forth between the shimmer of what’s been artfully constructed and the glint of what actually was. The reader is impressed by the panoramic architecture even as she forgets its presence.

This ambiguous territory has a more established place in poetry, a genre never filed into separate “fiction” and “nonfiction” areas on the shelves. But for narrative we’ve long been obsessed with partitioning the actual from the imagined, and the memoir-novel offers, finally, some relief from that Sisyphean taxonomy project. Shields describes the pleasure of “blurring (to the point of invisibility) . . . any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.”

So what’s the lure of the blur? Why do we like that space of uncertainty in which we don’t know what’s been invented and what hasn’t? When a book is marketed as memoir, that space marks a cardinal sin; in fiction, it can offer pleasure. And I think its appeal is somewhat panoramic; it has something to do with having it both ways at once. We get the frisson of admiring the narrative as both artifact and plain fact, a North Pole both imagined and constructed. We get to have our reality cake and eat it too.

These days the memoir-novels we hear about most are recent works by men — Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle,” Ben Lerner’s “Leaving the Atocha Station” and “10:04.” But my favorite example of the genre is from nearly 20 years ago, and it’s by a woman. Chris Kraus’s “I Love Dick” offers the story of a woman named Chris Kraus — also an experimental filmmaker, just like the author — reckoning with her unrequited love for “Dick ____,” a cultural critic with whom she becomes obsessed. The narrative is an exploration of desire as something other than passivity or inadequacy (“I think desire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy — a claustrophobia inside your skin”) and relentless romantic pursuit not as self-degradation but a kind of generative, creative act.

Kraus is interested in the dynamics of exposure itself: why we judge acts of self-exposure as self-absorbed or needy, especially if they come from a woman; how any trace of the self can become a kind of shameful stink, the whiff of some failure of imagination or, worse yet, self-pity or self-aggrandizement. She hates that one female artist’s “willingness to use her body in her work” is immediately labeled “narcissism.”

Kraus uses this critique to imply that she has a different set of purposes in her own acts of self-exposure, and one of them, of course, is an exploration of our fascination with exposure itself. Her book, which her husband (in its pages) calls “a new genre, something in between cultural criticism and fiction,” explores the particular tenor of exposure we find when autobiography comes packaged in a novel; the exposure is a bit obscured, a bit skewed or destabilized, as if nestled between scare quotes. 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.

Leslie Jamison is the author of an essay collection, “The Empathy Exams,” winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Her first novel, “The Gin Closet,” was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction; and her essays and stories have been published in numerous publications, including Harper’s, The Oxford American, A Public Space and The Believer. ◆ ◆ ◆

By Daniel Mendelsohn

Fiction has always fed on “reality,” and today that reality consists of disconcerting oscillations between the true and the fabricated.

What a relief to be asked about the “memoir-novel” instead of plain ol’ memoir! A decade ago, when soul-baring personal narratives about everything from operatically dysfunctional teenage Bildung (Augusten Burroughs’s “Running With Scissors,” 2002) to spectacularly theatrical addiction-and-recovery (James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” 2003) to the bottomless joys of anal sex (Toni Bentley’s “The Surrender,” 2004) were thronging the front tables at Barnes & Noble, everyone was asking about the reasons for the “memoir craze.” Why, critics and reviewers were wondering, had so many writers abandoned the novel for autobiography, fiction for (ostensible) “reality”? Today, an explosion of novels that teasingly blur the boundary between fiction and memoir — Sheila Heti’s “How Should a Person Be?” (2012), for instance, which includes the author’s real emails and transcripts of conversations with friends, or Karl Ove Knausgaard’s “My Struggle” (2009-11), a six-volume Norwegian Bildungsroman that presents itself as a meticulous reconstitution of the author’s real life — raise new and suggestive questions about the relation of fiction to reality.

One explanation for the apparent shift “back” to fiction is that the memoir had never strayed that far from fiction in the first place — in form and, notoriously, sometimes in content, too. At the height of the memoir boom, the highest praise you could lavish on a work of autobiographical nonfiction was that it “read like a novel.” Life, after all, is mostly uneventful; even the crises that we experience now and then are often random, inexplicable. That inexplicability is precisely what makes us want our lives to have “meaning” in the same way works of art and literature have “meaning” — meaning derived from structure, pattern, order. It’s no accident that the greatest memoirists, from St. Augustine to Vladimir Nabokov, were also serious students of literature. (Augustine wept over the death of the Carthaginian queen Dido in Virgil’s “Aeneid.”) As such, these writers knew how to give the random stuff of life a pleasing literary shape: Augustine’s “Confessions,” published around A.D. 400, traced a moral arc — from sin to redemption, from intoxicated youthful heedlessness to sober adult retrospection — that came to double as a literary structure.

The problem is that as the popular taste for the genre has grown, the aesthetic imperative — the need for an “arc” — could, in many cases, outweigh the moral imperative (i.e., that the story be true). The proliferating revelations that some of the most popular or memorable memoirs that started appearing at the turn of the millennium were either “enhanced” (most notoriously, James Frey’s “Million Little Pieces”) or wholesale fabrications (my own favorite being the “mémoire” of a Belgian woman who claimed to have been rescued from the Holocaust by a family of friendly wolves, although it later emerged that she wasn’t even Jewish) pointed to the limitations of everyday “reality.” Which is to say, it tends to pale next to fiction. As we know, even reality TV isn’t “real.”

What’s interesting is how many readers, judging by the online reviews, weren’t all that bothered by the literary frauds perpetrated by 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. Such deceptions seem, indeed, less galling precisely because we live in an age in which it’s increasingly possible to falsify reality in very convincing ways — from the minor sins of Photoshop to the seductive “profiles” we create online.

This is the “reality” of our era: a time in which we sit, in real trains and real restaurants, blaring our real life stories into cellphones, and then go home and log on to Match.com or Grindr or the comments sections of newspapers and magazines and speak through often falsified personas. Fiction has always fed on “reality,” and today that reality consists increasingly of such disconcerting oscillations between the true and the fabricated. The question isn’t why serious writers have turned to the memoir-novel, but how they could be writing anything else.

Daniel Mendelsohn is the author of seven books, including the international best seller “The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million”; two collections of essays on books, film, theater and television; and a translation of the poetry of Cavafy. His essays and reviews have appeared frequently in The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The New York Times Book Review. Mendelsohn has won the National Book Critics Circle Award for memoir and the NBCC’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Book Reviewing; the National Jewish Book Award; and the George Jean Nathan Prize for Drama Criticism. His most recent book, “Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays From the Classics to Pop Culture,” was a finalist for the NBCC award in criticism and the PEN Art of the Essay prize. He teaches at Bard College.

A version of this article appears in print on December 28, 2014, on page BR27 of the Sunday Book Review.

See online: What Accounts for Our Current — or Recurrent — Fascination With Memoir-Novels?

1 Review