Friday, September 10, 2010

Is Memoir Still a Dirty Word?

This needs to be an on-going conversation, so my post here is just a quick pebble thrown into the pond, hoping to stimulate some discussion around this issue.

The scorn against memoir that some writers and critics seem to feel, in spite of the growing—(perhaps too much?)—trend for memoir publication, puzzles me; but it also reminds me of a similar scorn, that vis-√†-vis the medium of photography when it emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century as a new artistic form. Indeed, the whole debate that raged at the time (and, significantly, has not quite died today) was on whether photography could be called an art form at all, given its heavily technological basis and its infinitely reproducible output.

Leaving aside the fact that the definition itself of "technology" is in the eye of the beholder—(by the standards of its own time context, the iron age was high technology)—and the whiff of elitist preciousness intrinsic to the idea that photography should be of lesser value because it can be reproduced, what is interesting is that the debate about photography back then, as the one on memoir today, hinged on similar fears held by the artistic √©lites of the time. 
A fear to become displaced from their creative ivory tower by the new medium/genre; and a fear of not being easily able to categorize the rather "hybrid" nature of the new medium/genre (and, by default, of "diluting" the classification status of their practiced medium).

Back then, it was the painters who vilified photography (while at the same time they started using it widely as a tool, recognizing its ease when compared with painting on location or with live models); today, it is the fiction writers who vilify memoir, regarding it as a "lesser" and at the same time "tainted" enterprise. 
Lesser, because in their mind it requires no feat of imagination to write something factual; tainted, because they cannot accept that even the "truth" (yet another moniker requiring socio-cultural contextualization) could be somewhat constructed and fictionalized. (On this somewhat endless debate, one wonderful text that collects a wide range of opinions by some of the strongest voices in the field of non-fiction writing is "Truth in Non-Fiction ", edited by David Lazar).

I could go on but I will stop here, hoping to stimulate discussion around these issues. I am here reproducing parts of a text (the underlining is mine) by Brent Staples found on fiction and non-fiction writer Kathryn Harrison's website. He writes about Harrison's controversial memoir "The Kiss" (in which she recounted her incestuous love affair with her father), but only by default; most of the piece is about the scorn against memoir.

"Autobiography was once dominated by famous people who summed up their lives near the end... Younger novelists have joined the memoir trend. But hard-core traditionalists have denounced it as a blight on literature and a turn toward self-indulgence and exhibitionism. This is curious indeed, given that novels and memoirs are often so closely related as to be interchangeable. First novels in particular are often no more than thinly veiled personal histories. In addition, the best memoirs use fictional techniques -- and could easily pass for novels if the writers wanted to call them that...
... the historical novelist Thomas Mallon said that novels were inherently about "larger truths," while memoirs were about personal ones. But what's obvious is that the devilish little girl in "The Liars' Club" is every little girl. That she bears the author's name makes her no less compelling or universal...
It has become popular to dismiss memoir as a way of peddling misery to a voyeuristic public. But what's at play here is a prejudice that regards fiction as more literary than nonfiction narrative writing... given the stylistic kinship that now links novels and memoirs, that prejudice is no longer supportable."

No comments:

Post a Comment