Defending the “Lost Art of Shutting Up”


Sometimes, the most boring people are the most effusive. The person who traps you on the other side of their monologue at a party; the person shouting into their cellphone on the bus. The constant tweeter. The teenager with 5,000 Facebook photos of her and her spray-tanned friends grinning in a line. These people are a fact of life, and well, whatever — except that now, as Neil Genzlinger points out in an article in the Times‘ Book Review, they’re all writing memoirs. Bad ones.

In reviewing four new memoirs, Genzlinger makes the case — and he’s right, mostly — that memoirs should only be written by people who have lived extraordinary lives or have something extraordinary to say. And not only that, memoirs should only be written by people who know how to write a damn book. We are living in an age in which Justin Bieber is working on a memoir. An age where, as Genzlinger puts it, “memoirs have been disgorged by virtually every­one who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an under­privileged child or been an under­privileged child.” He sets out to provide some rules for the genre, because “we don’t have that many trees left” (not true, strictly speaking, but okay):

1. Don’t write a memoir if your life is boring and unexceptional.

2. Don’t write a memoir if your sole purpose is to gin up pity for your miseries.

3. Don’t write a memoir if you’re jumping on a genre trend (e.g. eating disorders, autism, drug addiction).

4. If you do write a memoir, don’t make yourself the most important part of the story.

Leaving all this aside: why write a memoir at all?

Some of the most useful advice I’ve ever received about writing was in a freshman essay-writing seminar in college. “Your life is a text,” my professor said. “You can use scenes from your life, but only if you can use them to interpret and show something else.” The mistake that most of these errant memoirists make (although I haven’t read the memoirs at hand in Genzlinger’s piece) is to view their life not as a text, but as the whole shebang. And there’s no way to distill universality from this; the nuggets of truth that can exist in human experience are diluted when blown up to overwhelming size.

Genzlinger blames the “current age of oversharing.” I would argue, though, that the type of oversharing that runs rampant on the Internet isn’t quite the same as what’s going on in these memoirs. Writing on a personal blog about your love life is like the kid-cousin version of writing a memoir about your love life. Its primary purpose is catharsis, really. The primary purpose of writing a memoir is not catharsis, although that could be part of it; in theory, the primary purpose of a memoir should be the creation of art through lived experience (whether or not that is actually achieved). As Mary Karr put it in an interview with The Paris Review, “You remember through a filter of self.” A filter of self; the self shouldn’t be the most important thing here. In personal blogging, the self is the only thing.

It’s also arguable that the memoir simply seems like the easiest way to get published (remember the kerfuffle over James Frey?). “Seems like”; because actually, a good memoir is probably really hard to write, not that I would know from personal experience. A 300-page glorified blog post, though, is easy. You don’t have to make up characters, plots, anything, you can just regurgitate.

The question is, is the surge of crappy new memoirs really that bad of a thing? “Sorry to be so harsh, but this flood just has to be stopped,” writes Genzlinger. Why, though? Good memoirs will still be written, like the one that Genzlinger reviews positively ( An Exclusive Love, by a journalist named Johanna Adorjan). It seems like an odd thing to take up arms against. Why not try to stem the rising tide of bad fiction? Or the rising tide of bad amateur photography?

It probably comes from the same impulse that strikes those trapped in conversation with the bore, those whose Twitter feeds are consumed by quotidian bullshit from a single acquaintance. It’s the impulse to forcibly make the person shut up. Yeah, unskilled and uninspired memoirists are boring, and annoying, and self-indulgent. But the best way to stop the “flood” is to simply ignore them.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 30, 2011

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