Msnowe's Blog


Posted in Uncategorized by m.snowe on January 24, 2010

I think there's a fiction under my bed!


Hey, check out this piece on memoir in The New Yorker by Mendelson, vaguely reviewing Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History. Sadly, critics have noted that Yagoda’s book does more “cataloging than philosophizing,” so if we want to understand the more nuanced questions about why we are drawn to and also so enraged by memoir/autobiography as a form, we’ll just have puzzle them out as we go. Mendelsohn, for his part, does present a more psychological bent to his reflection on the form of the memoir (he starts with Freud, after all).  

Mendelsohn claims there is a new emergence of resistance to the “narcissism” of memoir, and that there is something inherently different in the way we as a culture look at and make value judgments about memoir, considering it has always existed (and for the most part flourished) for hundreds of years. If this is true, what is it about us that makes us so weary and on guard all of the sudden? Why do we gird our reading loins every time some new memoir makes claims that seem not-so-reliable?  m.snowe would not claim we have any “evolved” or enlightened viewpoint—but instead–an obsession with reality, and a fear of fiction. This doesn’t mean people are worried Madame Bovary, or their copy of Jane Eyre will emerge from under their beds, stagger towards them, and smother them with pillows whilst they sleep. The fear is that somehow, these books will all re-arrange themselves, and the definitions that we so loosely use to categorize (“Fiction & Literature,” “Biography,” “Non-Fiction,”) will become obsolete. m.snowe has always hated this notion, and she doesn’t understand this fear. Because, categories, taken when evaluating book-by-book, are already obsolete. Ciaos, thy name is messy dewey decimal. Of course, m.snowe was taught to approach texts with disregard for external influence—not to care whether the author was male or female, young or old, etc. and so on, because, at the end of the day, a text must and can stand alone. It is not an appendage, not even a ghost limb, even if the author twitches with pain every now and then, realizing what part of themselves they detached in order to share with the reading world.  

So many authors are doing so many different things to redefine the “genres” they are writing in. There’s metafiction, and neo-neo-realism, and new formats of delivery—(twitter?) you name it. While this is all exciting and great, one hypothesis might be that the instability of such genres in our current age has caused a reader backlash of sorts: the more writers have stretched the boundaries of what fiction, memoir , etc. can and should do, the more people have looked for safety and security in their original definitions. People want to feel comfortable, or at least know what the heck they’re reading.  And perhaps memoir or autobiography is the easiest genre to attack (i.e. analyze in terms of definability and adherence to certain strictures)—by standard definition, it is a truth-telling exercise with “real-life” experience. Of course, then you run into the problem of truth (or more likely, fact) written down on paper; something happens to change the facts as they move from reality, through the writer’s mind, and then, most notably, translated on paper. Autobiography can never be reality (neither can fiction!)—even if it tries to capture real events and observations by the biographer. Even if that biographer gets them “right.” Memoir will always use the same writerly conventions that fiction writers use—and that tangled, beautiful mess of diction, metaphor, etc. is what makes memoir interesting, but also blurs the line, albeit an imaginary line that shifts like the virtual first down line superimposed on your television screen during football games. We may know if shifts and isn’t really on the field with the players. But we see it nonetheless.  

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