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Stranger than Fiction November 23, 2009

Posted by pupfiction in Book Reviews.
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Having written Monday’s Book review on memoirs on Saturday, imagine my surprise when I opened the New York Times Sunday Book Review to find a review of Memoir: a History by Ben Yagoda by Judith Shulevitz. While I had set out to explain why I personally found memoirs so enthralling, Shulevitz suggests that Yagoda believes they “justify a life appealingly.” In his book, Yagoda traces the history of memoirs, the ebb and flow of memoir “crazes” and the ever-present attacks on their veracity.

What stood out most to me was Shulevitz’s exploration of our love of memoirs. She asks, “Does our passion for everyone else’s most intimate experiences prove that we’re voyeurs? If so, maybe there’s something to be said for voyeurism. We are social creatures, after all, and memoirizing is a social act”–an argument that one could easily have about social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace. Does this perhaps mean that our rampant love of social networking is a form of memoirizing, that we in fact are the generation most intrigued by the life stories of others?

Perhaps this explains my recent discovery of the wonders of memoirs, as I am a notorious Facebook-er. Never having been a fan of non-fiction, biographies, autobiographies, etc., I was astounded to find myself tearing through The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls, after my mother forced it upon me, comparing it to her own wacky and chaotic childhood. The very next week my friend pressed me into reading Sleeping Arrangements by Laura Shaine Cunningham, a woman she had met through writing workshops. A few weeks later I found myself browsing the very limited section of audiobooks at my public library and picking up a title that sounded familiar — Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.  All three works were some of the most entertaining, interesting, unbelievable page-turners that I had read in a very long time.

Quick summaries of each:

The Glass Castle: the story of an eccentric family headed by an alcoholic father and a mother who generally refuses to do anything more than work on her art. This memoir chronicles the family’s “adventures” across the nation landing them in poor, rural West Virginia where they live in a dilapidated house barely scraping by.

Sleeping Arrangements: chronicles the city life of Laura, from her wacky, sexually obsessed girlhood friends, to her life after her mother passes away, as she is raised by her two unique and very loving bachelor uncles as well as her slightly senile grandmother who shares her bedroom.

Running with Scissors: tells the story of Augusten’s childhood and teen years as he shuffles between the house of his mentally unstable mother and her girlfriends and the squalid, chaotic manor of her shrink and his sizable family. In this unstable environment, Augusten struggles to find love, attention, and stability.

What is it that makes these memoirs so entertaining?

While Yagoda argues (as stated above) that memoirs “justify a life appealingly,” and Shulevitz believes they are voyeuristic, I believe that readers find comfort in comparing their own upbringing to that of the memoirist; often finding that their family members weren’t, in fact, “weird” (or at least not comparatively). But in my experience, it’s just the opposite. My family was so normal, and my upbringing was so standard that I find these memoirs nearly incredible (and sometimes even envy-inducing). My parents never gave us celestial bodies for Christmas. My parents never let me paint the house in pink and orange stripes. My parents never let me skip school for weeks on end. BUT, my parents also never let me go without food for days, choosing “scientific” pursuits over a paying job.  I also never had to know the pain of losing my mother at a young age, or never knowing my father. And I, thank God, never had to examine my mother’s psychiatrist’s feces for answers to the future.

Whether you find your life similar to the lives of Walls, Cunningham and Burroughs or categorically different, all autobiographical works have the same undercurrent: the struggle to understand ourselves and our lives, and to find our place in the world. We face the same struggles regardless of circumstance. It doesn’t matter if your upbringing was crazy-chaotic-psychotic, or boring, blessed, and privileged. In the end, we are all human.



1. Josh Gran - November 23, 2009

This just proves that people’s imaginations are so limited that they can’t concentrate on fiction anymore. The rise of reality television should warn us that instead of creating NEW realities, we are more interested in staying exactly the same. Here is Thomas Friedman from his most recent Times Op-Ed article:

…we are moving into a hyperintegrated world in which all aspects of production — raw materials, design, manufacturing, distribution, fulfillment, financing and branding — have become commodities that can be accessed from anywhere by anyone. But there are still two really important things that can’t be commoditized. Fortunately, America still has one of them: imagination.

I am having trouble accepting Friedman’s position, and after reading your blog, sitting here on facebook, and reminiscing about last night’s episode of Tough Love on VH1, I feel secure with my judgment. Or maybe I’m just stupid! This sounds like the makings of a good Nirvana song.

2. pupfiction - November 23, 2009

Insightful comment but Shulevitz’s review shows us that memoirs have been around since St. Augustine, so I don’t know if it’s reality television that has made us “boring”.

What’s the other thing that can be commoditized?

3. dataduchess - November 23, 2009

I don’t think the rise in popularity of memoirs is a sign that people have become boring — to me, it actually seems the opposite is true. If, at least, we haven’t become more interesting, we have at least become more interested in ourselves.

I also don’t think that the popularity of memoirs indicates a lack of imagination or concentration on fiction. When I read a memoir, I have the same standard of judgment as when I read a novel – it is only as good as the story it tells. Whether the story is true or made up makes absolutely no difference to me.

And to be perfectly honest, I think the rise in reality programming has more to do with the unwillingness of production companies to spend the money on story production (writers, sets, costumes, filiming, editing etc) when half the work and cost is eliminated by following a real person around real life. Cheaper is not better, and I think Jay Leno’s 10pm Bomb shows that. But until the artfully crafted, cleverly written and imaginative shows can rake in the money, like American Idol, they don’t stand a chance. And just for the record, its a damn shame.

4. Josh Gran - November 23, 2009

Interesting theories all. Having said that (curb your enthusiasm joke), I don’t think one needs to bring Augustine into this conversation, or Rousseau for that matter, for their respective Confessions shatter the concept of what we have come to think of as memoirs.

What makes their works achieve that higher level of writing that one might reserve for only the best fiction — Proust, Tolstoy, etc. — is that they contain an intense level of eroticism. I speak of eroticism as it relates to Eros. Eros is love of an erotic sort, something that seems dirty and untutored to those of us growing up after the Sexual Revolution, the ultimate unintended consequence of the movement in the first place. We live in a time that would seem alien to Augustine or Rousseau — a time of soiled eroticism. Access to authentic Eros, authentic eroticism, used to be the primary drive behind personal discovery in the primal search for completion. Of course, if an individual could not find the ideals that he or she sought, he or she would create them, adding to where nature was lacking. We called those creations Art. With unlimited biological outlets for our erotic drives, have we lost the full power of eros? I think we have, and our memoirs reflect that. They are reflections on mere “kookyiness” and novelty, rather than something profound like the scene in Augustine’s Confessions where his mother dies, and he has a mystical vision of her ascent to the heavens. Try to find something like that in Running With Scissors!

And self-interest of today’s sort is only the upshot of the twentieth century — a search for answers in the recesses of the damaged psyche. It’s a losing proposition. Even Freud felt this futility in his later years!

5. Josh Gran - November 23, 2009

The other thing that cannot be commoditized, according to Friedman, is “good governance.”

6. Todd - January 10, 2010

I wrote a memoir. It details my life of adversity, loss, and addiction. It includes travel, search for identity, and triumph over my demons. Have been through several editors: all believe it defines my generation, but all backed out citing personal reasons. So, I found this site. Here is my ask for the Universe.

Writer seeks an editor. Must be interested in contributing to a story that could help change your vision of the world. Interested parties email Todd at liamgosset@gmail.com

Long may your big jib draw.

7. Monday Book Review: Med Head « The Infomavens' Desktop - February 1, 2010

[…] Hal Friedman, is unlike any book I have ever read in my entire life. A lover of fiction, who has recently taken a foray into the world of memoirs, I was unprepared for the story of Cory Friedman’s battle with vicious cases of […]

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