A great memoir/autobiography is, to my mind, a combination of two things – powerful writing full of personal insight and understanding, and the story of a interesting or remarkable life.
Great writing can transcend a non-famous life, though fame isn’t enough if the writing is ordinary.
Brian Thompson’s Keeping Mum, which won the Costa Biography Prize in 2006, is one example. It was the story of a bizarre wartime childhood, though in many ways it wasn’t so unusual in what were extraordinary times.
But the way he wrote about it was magnificent. What could have been a misery memoir (I am so sick of them, even if the horror of them demands compassion), was full of humour and compassion. It was moving and funny and wonderful.
Music legend Patti Smith’s Just Kids is magnificent. Certainly she has had an interesting life in a pretty big spotlight, but what makes this book remarkable is the quality of insight, and the beauty of the writing.
Melbourne writer Kate Holden’s In My Skin took what could have been a tawdry and ugly tale – a descent into drug addiction and prostitution, and out again – and turned it into a triumph. Beautiful writing, and a keen understanding. A great memoir.
Anything by David Sedaris. Though I pity his family.
But there seems to be a trend lately in fairly famous people writing memoirs about lives that really aren’t very interesting. And the writing isn’t great enough to make up for this deficit. They are lauded by their literary friends, and sales go through the roof.
But really, just dull.
(I must state here, these are strictly personal views, reflecting what I want in a memoir. I am aware many people will not agree).
A recent example is Magda Szubanksi’s biography, Reckoning. It received a lot of positive press, particularly around the revelation of her father’s work as an assassin in the war.
In part the positiveness of the response is a reflection of the warmth and sweetness of her presence on our TV screens and stages.
But getting to that revelation in the book took a long time. I was at least 150 pages in, and it was still dealing with primary school! And seriously, nothing that interesting was happening.
As she moved into high school there was confusion about sexuality, and some tricky stuff to deal with. But no more than almost everyone suffers in school.
And the writing, while clear and appealing, was fairly procedural. This happened and that happened and then that happened. If I’m going to read about everyday stuff, I need the quality of the insights or the writing to raise it above the ordinary, to give it a reason for me to want to keep reading.
If I want to read about ordinarily-odd and tormenting primary school days, I can write my own. So could most of my friends.
Then came Clementine Ford’s Fight Like A Girl. I picked this up wanting to read more of her terrifically bolshy, outspoken, uncompromising feminist manifesto. She is saying what needs to be said, and I applaud her for it.
But again, for the chapters I managed to get through, this seemed to be a misery memoir, all about how as a girl she got bullied, people were horrible (how dare they!) …
Yes, I’m sure it was bad, but I thought I was buying a political treatise, not a memoir.
Perhaps my lack of connection is a reflection of my age, since she and I are different generations. For a younger generation, it sometimes seems it’s enough to claim victimhood, and then everyone rallies around. In mine, it would never have occurred to us. I’m not saying it was a better way of dealing with things – I’m sure it’s more personally destructive – but perhaps some aspects have stuck. I don’t much like wallowing.
In any case, it’s that kind of sideways memoir I find particularly annoying. I think the writers know their life isn’t actually interesting enough to write about, but they really want to. So they find an acceptable framework and slip it in there.
The latest is a new one, My Life with Bob, by Pamela Paul. She’s the editor of the NY Times Book Review (that earned an instant girl crush from me), and it’s about her “book of books”, a journal she has kept since she was a girl detailing every book she’s read.
It’s about the “deep and powerful relationship between book and reader”, about how and why we read, and about our own stories.
Well, yes. Kinda.
Again, it’s mostly a memoir. Her dating life, her disastrous first marriage, her children, her job history, scattered through with the books she was reading at the time.
And as much as I desperately wanted to love this, because I understand that obsession with reading deep in my bones, the reality is, her life isn’t that interesting. And there is not enough actual insight to make reading about it worthwhile.
Consequently, I find myself reading about one of my favourite topics – books – and I’m bored. And that’s some kind of crime.
However, the memoirs I don’t like have probably outsold the ones I do, which puts me in a big minority, while books like Keeping Mum are long forgotten by the market, if not by me.
On the other hand, it’s clear that books like Reckoning and Fight Like A Girl struck a chord in the local market and people love them.
I just want more.
Some more great memoirs
Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, by Anthony Bourdain
Poum and Alexandre, By Catherine de Saint Phalle
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl – A memoir, by Carrie Brownstein
The White Road: A pilgrimage of sorts, by Edmund de Waal
West With the Night, by Beryl Markham
Dry, by Augusten Burroughs. Or Running with Scissors
H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald
Three Cups of Tea, by David Oliver Relin and Greg Mortenson
Coming up soon on my bedside table
Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance, by Barack Obama
An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, by Col. Chris Hadfield
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami