Monday, July 17, 2006

What's Up with Memoirs?

Did anyone catch the Benjamin Kunkel essay Misery Loves a Memoir in yesterday's New York Times? There's filler in there, but he manages to make an interesting point:

Somehow it still seems brave to admit between the covers of a book to all that has gone wrong with us, when in fact nothing is more customary. No taboo appears to constrain the memoirist — except the taboo on aspiration, for oneself or one's society. Self-improvement of the kind Thoreau undertook has become the province of self-help manuals, while impassioned complaints against our civilization (as much a part of Rousseau and Thoreau or, for that matter, Henry Miller, as introspection is) are rarely placed in the context of a lived daily life. So it is that we live in a rich and free country, full of striving individuals chasing comfort and distinction, whose autobiographical literature tells us that helpless addiction and passive suffering are the most meaningful experiences you can have.
I'm glad someone had the nerve to say this. I enjoy a well written memoir as much as the next person, but it does seem there are an over abundance of books about personal suffering. I have nothing against books about personal suffering, but to me there has to be a bigger picture. If the book is written just because someone needs to confess and it does something for them to make it public, or the author hopes to become famous for the confession, then I have no interest. If I read a memoir I want there to be some kind of purpose whether it be Thoreau-like or something that will raise my awareness and understanding of an idea or issue. The blatantly confessional memoir is too voyeuristic for me. I suspect they are popular because they feed a public's personality cult desires and need for sensational stories, gossip, and scandal. What has happened to serious thought? Why do so many of the stories we tell about ourselves focus on the misery and not much else? Even Alphonse Daudet's In the Land of Pain which discusses his slow decline from syphilis, moves beyond the purely personal. Other than a pat on the back and a paycheck, what are people who write memoirs hoping for when they write intimate books about how they survived a car wreck, an addiction, a disease? And what does it say about us as a society as Kunkel suggests, when the most meaningful experiences we can have are about "helpless addiction and passive suffering?"