The Attack on the Memoir: Not Interested, Says Tobias Wolff!

by James McAuley

In the most-recent New York Times Book Review came an attack on the memoir. Well, technically it was an attack on the memoir written by anyone outside the circle of the “memoir-eligible.” It goes: “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir,” and then proceeds to savage three recent memoirs. The author, Neil Genzlinger, yearned for a now-distant day, when “unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.”

“Who does he think he is?” said Natalie Goldberg, memoirist and author of the Writing Down the Bones and the recent Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir, calling Genzlinger’s view “small-minded.”

“He should catch up with the times,” she said. “People are writing blogs now. Writing is alive now. Writing is not for a special few, and that’s wonderful. Writing is a basic human right, just like the pursuit of happiness, justice, and equality.”

Anne Fadiman, a Yale professor whose creative nonfiction has won the National Book Critics Circle Award, wrote in an e-mail that while she agrees that plenty of bad memoirs are being written, she doesn’t agree that “one need have led an unusually interesting life, though it helps.”

“What matters most,” she wrote, “is that one is an interesting writer and an interesting person. Have you read Virginia Woolf’s short personal essay ‘The Death of the Moth?’ The action takes place over the course of five or ten minutes. Here’s the plot: Woolf notices a moth in her study. It flies around a little and then dies. End of story. Where’s the action? Where’s the drama? Inside Woolf’s head, of course. She makes us interested in this apparent non-event because of what she brings to the table. The same goes for book-length memoirs.”

We also wrote to Tobias Wolff, who’s won the PEN/Faulkner Award, for his take on the matter.

“Sorry, but I haven’t the interest or time for this,” he wrote.

James McAuley is a student in Cambridge, Mass.