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Confessing for Voyeurs:

The Age of The Literary Memoir Is Now

James Atlas

New York Times Magazine, May 12, 1996


It began, like any revolution, almost imperceptibly. Could it have been the tremendous success of "Darkness Visible," William Styron's memoir of his bout with suicidal depression, that opened the floodgates? Or was it "Girl, Interrupted," Susanna Kaysen's best-selling memoir of life in a mental institution? Or maybe it wasn't until Mary Karr burst on the scene last year with "The Liars' Club" that the full force of this new trend started to make itself felt. But if the monent of inception is hard to locate, the triumph of memoir is now established fact. Consider the evidence: nearly two dozen memoirs are being published this spring, with more to come, supplementing the 200 titles -- by one book review editor's estimate -- published last year. A random inventory of the galleys and review copies that have lately come across my desk: "First Comes Love," by Marion Winik, the tale of a Jewish Harvard-Law-School-bound poet from New Jersey and her marriage to a gay working-class Italian hairdresser doomed to die of AIDS (like any revolution); "The Net of Dreams," by Julie Salamon, about her parents' journey from Auschwitz to a small town in Ohio; "A Message From God in the Atomic Age," by Irene Vilar, the history of a suicide-afflicted family. (They're not all so dark: Daniel Duane's "Caught Inside," an ebullient memoir of growing up in California, is billed as "a cultural history of surfing.")

It's a democratic genre -- inclusive, a multiculturalist would say. The old and the young (Veronica Chambers, author of "Mama's Girl," is 25); the famous and the obscure; the crazy and the sane: the contemporary memoir is like the Nature Theatre of Oklahoma in Kafka's fable "Amerika," where everyone can be an artist. Everyone can be an autobiographer.


Even academia has got into the act. Down at Duke, always a reliable harbinger of the zeitgeist, lit. crit. has been virtually banished from the campus in favor of what the literary journalist Adam Begley has dubbed "moi criticism": the private confessions of professors. "Autobiography is the latest wave," writes Begley in a recent issue of Lingua Franca; the "first person singular" has become "one of the distinguishing marks of current academic writing." Frank Lentricchia, once a scholarly interpreter of T. S. Eliot, writes a seamy confession titled "The Edge of Night"; Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick abandons textual criticism in favor of a sexual self-exploration called "Tendencies." The unstable authorial "I" that came under assault in English departments across the land during the 70's and 80's now occupies center stage.

Why this pull toward the anatomy of self? In part, it reflects a phenomenon pervasive in our culture -- people confessing in public to an audience of voyeurs. In an era when "Oprah" reigns supreme and 12-step programs have been adopted as the new mantra, it's perhaps only natural for literary confession to join the parade. We live in a time when the very notion of privacy, of a zone beyond the reach of public probing, has become an alien concept. What Christopher Lasch famously labeled "the culture of narcissism" has been replaced by the culture of confession. It's a phenomenon that transcends high and low. Celebrity bios revel in the sexual peccadilloes of magnates and movie stars; John Updike, in "Self-Consciousness," recounts the time he brought a woman to orgasm in the back seat of a car while his unsuspecting wife sat in the front.

Why should aspirants to literature be immune to this climate of unbridled candor? As Robert Lowell, our great confessional poet, put it, "Why not say what happened?" There's no rule -- not even an ethical one -- to prevent the poet and former Princeton professor Michael Ryan, in "Secret Life," from revealing that he had sex with his dog. Writers no longer need to furtively disguise their transgressions as fiction. If Proust were writing today about his penchant for observing handsome young men stick hatpins in live rats, he wouldn't hide behind the Narrator of his novel: "A la Recherche du Temps Perdu" would be a memoir.

The license to tell all has produced a virtual library of dysfunctional revelation. What Joyce Carol Oates memorably called "pathography" -- biographies that dwell on the sordid excesses of their subjects -- has yielded to "autopathography," dwelling on the sordid excesses of oneself. Alcoholism is a particularly hot topic. (Caroline Knapp's "Drinking: A Love Story" will be in the stores next month.) So is mental illness. (See Kay Redfield Jamison's best-selling "Unquiet Mind.") Physical ordeals are also a memoiristic staple: the canon of contemporary autobiography includes two memoirs of facial disfigurement, Lucy Grealy's "Autobiography of a Face" and Natalie Kusz's "Road Song." (Kusz's face was nearly ripped off by an Alaskan husky when she was a child.) Our belief in the recuperative powers of letting it all hang out has never been stronger. The triumph of the therapeutic predicted by the sociologist Philip Rieff a generation ago is a reality.

Yet this urgency to get at the facts -- or what are presumed to be the facts -- has a long tradition; it reflects our historic American longing to discover who we are. The literature of the self has a long tradition in America; the Emersonian "I," declaring the primacy of subjective consciousness, was a vigorous 19th-century theme, nowhere more pronounced than in Whitman's "Song of Myself." But until not long ago, it was more traditional forms of narrative, in particular the novel, that provided instruction in manners and morals, that sought to explain -- in Trollope's words -- the Way We Live Now. Our hunger for authenticity found expression in stories that were realistic but fictional. Hemingway and Sherwood Anderson, Fitzgerald and Dos Passos worked close to the vein of autobiography, drawing on the material of their own lives. The history of American literature is a history of private experience enacted on a public stage.

Can the novel still claim this primacy? Can it compete with TV, with the lure of our wondrous new computer technology, with the sheer pace of contemporary life? The fact is -- and it has been widely documented -- we do still read. More than ever, in our diverse and volatile society, literary narratives offer a substitute for the institutions -- school, church, family -- that once furnished us with a sense of personal identity. "People want a window on how to behave," Mary Karr has said. They want to read about someone's life and say, This is how it was. This really happened. The novelist writes disguised autobiography; the memoirist cuts to the chase. "I want to record how the world comes at me, because I think it is indicative of the way it comes at everyone," writes Phillip Lopate, an inveterate practitioner of the genre. It could be the memoirist's credo.

The habit of self-examination can grow tiresome. That a book purports to be a true confession doesn't mean it's good -- or, for that matter, true. As Janet Malcolm has noted with her characteristic tartness: "The subject of an autobiography is no less at the mercy of the writer than the subject of a biography." The excesses of the form are easy to satirize. William Gass, in a recent Harper's essay, "The Art of Self: Autobiography in an Age of Narcissism," loudly objected that literature was being taken over by a bunch of narcissists: "Look, Ma, I'm breathing. See me take my initial toddle, use the potty, scratch my sister, win spin the bottle. Gee whiz, my first adultery -- what a guy!"

Point taken. But try reading Gass's bloated novel about a closet Nazi, "The Tunnel," on which he labored for three decades. Fiction isn't delivering the news. Memoir is. At its best, in the hands of a writer able to command the tools of the novelist -- character, scene, plot -- the memoir can achieve unmatchable depth and resonance. "The Liars' Club," which recently reached No. 5 on the paperback best-seller list, is a classic of American literature. Tending her postage stamp of reality, as Faulkner advised, Mary Karr conjures the simmering heat and bottled rage of life in a small Texas oil town with an intensity that gains power from its verisimilitude -- from the fact that it's fact. "French Lessons: A Memoir," Alice Kaplan's beautifully evocative account of how, as a child, she filled the void left by her father's death by immersing herself in another culture, is an equally compelling variant on the making of a writer: it chronicles the journey from there to here.

Contemporary memoir comes in many forms; it's as various as the stories its practitioners relate. From edgy post-modern memoirs like "Sex Death Enlightenment: A True Story," by Mark Matousek, a harrowing account of his philandering mother, deadbeat dad and suicidal sister, to "Being Brett," Douglas Hobbie's devastating journal of his daughter's death, written in the third person (as if no I could bear it), the genre eludes precise literary definition. Some memoirs are written as history, replete with documents and genealogies; others are terse, impressionistic catalogues of moments in a life. What memoirists have discovered is that they can bring to their own stories the narrative sweep of fiction or biography. Fiction demands that the writer invent; memoir exploits as material the gift of lived experience. Tobias Wolff, like his brother, Geoffrey ("The Duke of Deception"), alternates between fiction and memoir. His "In Pharaoh's Army: Memories of the Lost War" is one of the most graphic books to come out of Vietnam. "The conventions of American war fiction are so powerful, so deeply rooted and seductive that when I tried to write about it I found myself distracted by the truth that I really did have command of," Wolff says. "How was I going to write something fresh and true about that experience? For me, the only way was to write my own memories."

The memoirs assembled here reflect the energy of a generation of writers for whom fact has become as compelling a medium as fiction. Mary Gordon's new book, "The Shadow Man," excerpted in these pages, is a startling departure from "Final Payments," the novel that established her reputation nearly two decades ago as a "Catholic" novelist. In "The Shadow Man," she revisits the theme of a daughter's struggle to resolve her feelings toward a dead father -- only in this instance, it's the actual father, Mary Gordon's father, and he turns out to have been Jewish, a revelation that transforms the author's life and brings it into sudden focus.

Many readers will also be familiar with the work of Leonard Michaels, a master of the short-story form, and Susan Cheever, best known for "Home Before Dark," a portrait of her famous novelist father. Art Spiegelman, whose comic-book portrait of his father's escape from the Nazis, "Maus," was one of the most original works to come out of the Holocaust, now turns to that event's meaning in his own life. Others, introduced here to a wider public, have found in memoir the means to what Joyce Carol Oates calls, in her contribution to this issue, "an inventory of our lives." If they have a common theme, it's the pull of childhood, the sense that the writers' formative years came early; they are works in progress that reflect lives in progress, still waiting to be edited and shaped.

Can it last? Will memoir prove as evanescent as other cultural phenomena? There's a danger of burn-out: "Everybody's got one of these babies in him," as a famous novelist recently remarked. Maybe only one. Memoirs (unlike novels) don't generally get written twice. Yet the form could turn out to be surprisingly robust. A sure sign: the catalogues of universities now offer courses in memoir and the literature of self. Perhaps an even surer sign: literary agents making their annual pilgrimages to the famous writing program at the University of Iowa and signing up memoirists for six-figure deals. (They used to sign up novelists.) With auguries like these, who can doubt the memoir is here to stay -- if not forever, then for a good long while?


Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company