Guidelines for memoirists: discovery, not regurgitation

A stinging but timely consideration of what makes an excellent memoir in “The Problem with Memoirs” by Neil Genzlinger in this weekend’s New York Times Book Review, published online today. Genzlinger, a staff editor at the newspaper, is fed up with memoirs after reading four in a row, and concluding that “three of the four did not need to be written.”

What feels like a glut of memoirs – 1,000 being published this year in the US alone – seems to me symptomatic of the book publishing industry as a whole. In the generalised anxiety about what book readers want to read, and by which channel/s they wish to read those books, publishers are pumping out titles in print and digital formats, hoping something will stick. As with any large number of books – of any genre – it’s inevitable that there will be a few unforgettable ones, a great number of very poor ones, and the rest will be mediocre or interesting mostly for their timeliness or their well-known author.

I have many things to say about the writing of memoirs – after all, I coach memoir writers as part of making my freelance living – but I will leave some oxygen for subsequent posts. For now, here are Genzlinger’s four guidelines for anyone attempting a memoir. While the tone of his article is harsh, his comments are not unfair.

#1. That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.

It’s not enough to write because something happened to you, and to expect publication. The best memoirs must be about more than their author, and about more than the ordinary.

#2. No one wants to relive your misery.

Here’s a critical question to ask yourself: Are you looking to entertain or enlighten your reader, or are you just looking for sympathy for yourself?

#3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.

Genzlinger takes aim at the imitation-publishing rampant in memoirs, targeting the new book by Allen Shawn about his twin sister’s autism, the topic with “the latest pile” of memoirs about it.

#4. If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character.

This intriguing guideline is exemplified in Genzlinger’s view by Johanna Adorjan’s “An Exclusive Love” (translated by Anthea Bell, and published in 2010 in Australia by Black Ink – see LiteraryMinded’s review). Berlin-based journalist Adorjan reconstructs the day in 1991 when her grandparents, who lived in Denmark, took their own lives in an apparent suicide pact.

My friend Lily Brett, who is well known to Australian, German, and Austrian readers, gave me a copy of this book recently. She is friends with Adorjan and told me that in the early days of Adorjan’s project they discussed different ways of telling this story. Given that I’m working my way towards a structure for my own new book, Genzlinger’s glowing review has shot the book to the top of my memoir-reading pile:

Although [Adorjan] is part of the story, she wisely keeps herself on its edges, occasionally noting personality traits or mementos she inherited from her grandparents, but mostly bringing the two of them to life through her recollections and the memories of contemporaries she interviews.

This fascinating couple, who had survived the Holocaust and the Hungarian uprising of 1956, come slowly into focus for the author and the reader simultaneously, or so Adorjan makes it seem. That’s what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery.

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