On hating a memoirist

Bill Roorbach readin’ and lovin’ Wild up in Maine. Despite its bestsellerdom, or because of it, some hate the book and its author.

Another nonfiction issue: judging a book by its author?

 I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are, and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.—William Gass

As my previous three posts indicate, I admire Cheryl Strayed’s bestselling memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. I devoured it as a reader and also loved how I could raid her techniques for my own memoir. So I was surprised to read some reactions to Bill Roorbach’s laudatory review of Wild on Bill and Dave’s Cocktail Hour.

Margaret Benbow, a poet, wrote:

. . . Why do I feel that I understand her, and what she’s about, better than you? Because I’m a woman. I intensely enjoy her writing. No question that she has the chops. The problem comes with your faith in her “honesty”. I see most of her unbuttoned, hairy, sweaty sexual recollections as calculating. They get the reader’s attention, right? She glories in her own screw-ups, rubs her (and our) face in them time and again. She SETS UP screw-ups on the trail. Who in her right mind would prepare so inadequately for such a demanding physical crucible as the Pacific Trail? Why has she chosen brand new unbroken-in too-small boots? She endlessly whines about the poor rags of her feet–whose tattered condition was absolutely inevitable, given her contempt for the most basic preparation. She has mailed packages to herself with food and money at halting-places on the trial. They are often missed, inadequate.

Strayed has a kink in herself which demands constant life crises…and for readers to see them, deplore them, be excited by them, root for her to overcome them. She’s extremely good at being an exhibitionistic screw-up performance artist. In general, I like and admire her book. But I don’t like that calculating glimmer in the back of her eye.

Hmmm. Well. I found surprising and interesting this peevish reaction and Bill’s irritated reply and her rejoinder and another reader’s also weighing in coolly toward Strayed. Personally I had no problems with Strayed’s sensuous but rather mild depiction of a sexual incident on the trail. And I felt her preparation, a mix of intense focus and amateurish oversight, totally believable (and she only screwed up once mailing stuff to herself).

Something deeper was at work in my acceptance. I admired her courage for taking a 1,100 mile hike alone—and for her entire under-employed young artist journey. When I was young I always wanted to do something like her backpacking adventure, which she undertook, I think, in her role as a young writer as much as she did for its healing properties. Instead, I worked. My equivalent post-college adventure was traveling to New York for the first time and taking classes at a famous method-acting school; I’d never been outside the south or in a big city, and New York scared me—it scared a lot of people in the late 1970s, so much crime and hostility on the street. I remember reading The World According to Garp on July 4, 1978, sprawled beneath an air conditioner—it was 104 degrees outside—in my sublet at 113th Street and Broadway.

Cheryl Strayed: don’t worry, be happy?

At the age Strayed lit out for the trail, twenty-six and turning twenty-seven, I’d worked for several newspapers and had just accepted a Kiplinger fellowship to Ohio State, where I spent a year reading history, philosophy, religion, and literature. Then I went back to newspapers, married, settled down, had kids. I also wrote short stories, but about the time I wrote one that had promise, I got busy (or something) and quit, not returning to creative or deeply personal writing for several years. So I was awed by Strayed’s belief in herself or in her writing dream, which she had very little to show for coming off the trail as thirty loomed ahead.

But I did have to overcome my own doubts about Strayed, I realized. For me, it was her blaming her self-destructive meltdown—her affairs and drug use and divorce that led her to the trail—on the depth of her derangement after her mother’s death. Gradually I accepted her explanation of being derailed by grief, not because I’ve ever shared it to that extent but because of other life experiences I brought to Wild.

Strayed, the middle of three children, was six when her mother divorced her abusive father; she carries scarring memories of seeing her mother hurt, punched or dragged down a sidewalk by her hair, and of being threatened herself with her daddy’s knuckle sandwiches. Strayed and her sister grew up as not very close siblings, and her sister puzzles Strayed by staying away when their mother lies dying. Maybe she just couldn’t take the pain of it. But this woman, a couple years older than Strayed, by definition took the first blow, so to speak, from their father and his dysfunctional household—the first born takes the first blow and gets the first benefit from parents—and she surely suffered more than Strayed. Maybe she had more bitterness toward their submissive mother or just more distance. Maybe she was angry at Strayed, so tough and questing, for displacing her in the sibling hierarchy. Perhaps for all of that.

In any case Strayed ascended over her more damaged sister (in my reckoning) as leader of the sibling pack and glommed onto their mother so fiercely as a child and young adult—which she depicts—that I don’t see how her older sister could have had anything but a secondary relationship,  in comparison, with the woman. That wouldn’t have affected their brother, baby to all in the family dynamic. But it would have, as we said in the South, cheesed her big sister’s grits.

Am I what Bill Roorbach accuses Margaret Benbow above of being, an armchair psychologist?

Absolutely.

But aren’t we all?

I hope I don’t explain everything in life, as a middle child myself, in terms of birth order. But my own experience of its significance is why I despised Vladimir Nabokov’s self-portrait in Speak, Memory, reviewed here. And my reaction was in part a perverse rebellion against the literary establishment and canon—more middle child stuff?—for endlessly praising his memoir. Briefly, Nabokov admits to cruelly dominating his younger brother as they grew up and then judges him a hapless fool for sticking around Germany too long and getting killed by the Nazis. Guess which one of the brothers I identified with?

Regardless of the validity of my or Margaret Benbow’s visceral reactions to authors, isn’t this yet another nonfiction issue? Judging a book by its author? I’m always ashamed when I do, feeling it’s an invalid way to assess a work of literature, and at the same time secretly convinced of the truth of my perception. To me Nabokov was a cold fish and a cruel human being, whose art—or at least whose nonfiction—should be suspect. (Some milder critics merely find Speak, Memory boring since, following his aesthetic star, Nabokov wrote about his toy soldiers and butterfly collection rather than his assassinated father and his aristocratic family’s traumatic exile from Russia.)

And yet I give Nabokov a pass in his fictional worlds and works. We all do, pretty much. Relatively few blame him for Humbert Humbert in Lolita. No, quite the contrary. We praise an author of fiction for using bits of himself—his socially unacceptable feelings, his misdeeds, his psychic warps—to animate various characters. There seems to be two reasons why some fiction writers cannot countenance memoir: such a waste of good material; and using oneself overtly, in such an unguarded way, only invites others’ disdain.

An acquaintance, a scholar and editor, who read a chapter of my memoir praised my courage. I’m not sure what he meant, unless it’s the exposure of my family’s particular trauma and that general risk of backlash that memoir writers face. My twentysomething son said the problem with my memoir is that it doesn’t show how strange I am. On the one hand, such a classic kid’s response to his parent. On the other, he had a point. Am I protecting myself too much, fearing rejection? I upped the strangeness quotient. But one should construct a persona that serves the particular book, no? Reveal one’s weirdness artfully, not all at once?

But regardless of what you do, brace yourself, Effie. Because some people are going to think—and say—terrible things about you and your modest attempt to offer to the world a gift.

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37 Comments

Filed under audience, honesty, memoir, MY LIFE, NOTED, reading, REVIEW

37 responses to “On hating a memoirist

  1. David Bailey

    I think if any of us really showed how strange we are, most readers would find it unbelievable. Good post, Richard, in a series of good posts, exploring just how honest any writer really can be.

    • Thanks, David. Having skimmed Howard Stern’s memoir, I know there is a market for not just brutally honest but disgustingly so. I guess I try to tread a middle ground, somewhat more bold that in life, perhaps, but rather reasonable, to me. Not to those who find themselves weakened by confession, certainly. I find hovering on the edges of my work—here, as in the memoir—the question of how to present a persona that works for readers and that I can accept—and live with.

  2. Most interesting… I don’t get the personal attacks.
    I defended Strayed’s book on another blog a month or so ago…the poster felt that Strayed had learned nothing when she had her casual encounters on the trail (she also questioned how much of it was REALLY remembered). I felt Strayed was as honest as she could be with recall.
    The axe the poet had to grind with Strayed is idiotic. I question if the poet has ever done outdoor adventure on a semi-whim, or had a major crisis at twentysomething. I’ve experienced both, ergo, that was the most authentic part of the writing. Bravo for your continued work…it is never easy to put our personal out there to be chewed up by the masses and possibly spit with audible distaste in the end. ~

    • Thanks so much, Angela. The various reactions to any work are truly puzzling—that’s why I read (sometimes) but do not necessarily heed negative Amazon reviews. I have written before about the sense of responsibility to a larger audience that the shrinking number of mainline, mainstream reviewers are supposed to have; this constrains them, to be sure, but restrains peevish personal reactions and recognizes their own limitations. They have to think of the vast audience they are writing for and what it might receive from a work, not just venting their own ire. Bloggers not so much, and commentors on blogs even less.

      I am leery of attacking any living author—why waste my time or yours with such negativity when there’s so much to be praised?—but do understand the deeply personal and egoistic and righteous feelings and psychic wounds that give rise to hateful reactions. I do not get at all the angry reactions to Strayed; the “darkest” I can get toward her is that she was ambitious in a writerly sense—but that was obvious in her book, not hidden, and anyway I admired it.

  3. Any writer who values the beauty of a strong, authentic “voice” has to admit that the girl (Cheryl Strayed) has got it. Really got it. They should bow at her feet. No, really. I am so sick of the attack on the writer of memoir as opposed to the writing itself that I can barely write this. Poets write from the “I” all the time and you rarely hear that they are whining, dishonest, self-absorbed excuses for a human being. Mind-boggling.

    • I agree, Jan. There’s so much ignorance about memoir, even among high-level reviewers, who can snipe really meanly. There is a blaming and an equating of a good memoir with a really bad one—as if they are the same! As if all novels can be judged by one.

    • Great point about poets writing about themselves and their angst. That sure is accepted.

  4. Thoughtful post…thank you. I couldn’t help but wonder if all the objectors to Strayed were simply jealous—while she opened up and shared her plight and its craziness and irrational moments–they have hidden their own and done far less adventurous things. We all have grief, we all are devastated by it. But her channeling of it, the open admission of it at all, is startling and new. I could see that making some very uncomfortable.
    For me, the memoir that provoked the most ire were those of Mary Kerr….I could not relate to her at all. But in honesty, I have more similarities than differences. Shhh…don’t tell.

    • Amy, I do think there are psychic and deeply personal and often unknown and irrational reasons some readers hate authors, especially memoirists. That’s why I admitted what I think is my own source of anger against Nabokov—I identify with the brother he bullied. I suppose it’s not Nabokov’s fault that he was first and is parents treated him like a genius prince. But his lack of empathy for the brother unlucky enough to be born so soon after he came along just stuck in my craw.

      I am now rereading Karr’s most recent memoir Lit and admire it. Have no urge to reread The Liar’s Club and am curious about Cherry, which I have not yet read . . .

      • With Kerr I identified with her child and so resented her lack of care…and yet, I get it. Nabokov…tough one. I wonder how much his lack of empathy related to his fear (possible or improbable?) of being displaced by him…no child wants a replacement in the wings.

        I think those irrational reasons you mention, the unknown…have to be related to our society’s pride of those who stoically keep quiet and overcome (as if they aren’t falling apart inside). Really enjoy your feed, btw.

  5. Yes, I’m sure Nabokov was being competitive, which is natural, and in the extreme which may not be. In my post I speculate how Cheryl’s older sister must have felt, with Cheryl perhaps less damaged by her father and glomming onto her mother.

    However valid or wrong such speculations, I wonder if they’re one of the reasons we read. We crave in books the news of others’ subjective experience of life, and what we make of their stories in large part is determined by what we bring to it.

  6. Richard Moore

    Seems to me that strong emotional reactions to
    evocative, often shocking, personal narratives—i.e,
    memoir—are inevitable. It’s that identification thing
    that lots of people experience. Feelings of admiration,
    guilt, pity, blame, jealousy, anger, and much more.
    All this churning is compounded by questions of “is it true?”
    The result is a combination of incoming billets doux or mortar
    rounds, depending. I also don’t find it surprising that people’s
    reaction to fiction is so very different: it’s not supposed
    to be true, it happened to someone else, it’s not me. We access
    fiction through the distance-filter of an omniscient narrator; it can
    of course move us, but rarely in the same gut-wrenching way.
    Thanks for yet another excellent post.

  7. Great discussion and post as always, Richard. The series on Wild is particularly interesting, as I read it before all the hoopla and two days before seeing Cheryl in Berkeley. She told us that everyone wants to know about her feet! There are so many issues fogging up memoir writing, from the POV of the memoir writer, all those “inner critic” voices that may also be the outer critics waiting to pounce, to being so exposed emotionally and physically even, when sharing our very personal bodily details, our emotional inner core, irrational bats flying around, our insecurities.
    Perhaps that’s why memoir isn’t going away as the pundits predicted-hoped a few years ago–a memoirist takes us into the heart of the human condition, and none of us are immune to being human…so far. We want to know about grief and how others manage it, or mismanage it, we want to know how someone loses control so we can see how it measures up to our own secret stuff. We are learning from each other about day to day existence, and the twists and turns…some of them ugly…that life takes. To stand back and judge anyone else’s version of the journey that is life is to probably be struggling with some level of fear, but that’s me talking as a therapist/and memoirist.
    I can’t separate what I’ve learned about people when reading memoir, and try to figure out why people say what they do, though it’s hard to understand sometimes. I was with Cheryl all the way, admiring her turns of phrase and transitions as much as I was into the story. I have told my students all to read it twice, first for enjoyment, and next to learn skills. I look forward to more discussions here, and thank you!

  8. We all bring our own experience to both the reading experience and the writing experience. The reactions to the book are as interesting for what they say about the reader, I was curious to read this because two of my book buddies had opposite views of it, one in her 20’s and the other, the age of the author 44. Is it clear who would love it and who would hate it based on age and/or experience? Ok, the young reader hated it.

    I just finished the book and I really enjoyed it, I left my own country at 26 and set out on a wild journey and recall that desire and eventually the fulfilling feeling of travelling alone, how liberating it was to meet myself for the first time. I wasn’t aware that I was on any kind of spiritual journey, but I know now, that going on a solo journey is inevitably that, whether you seek it or not.

    I liken this book to a letter from a friend, in which we are a passive participant, listening and not commenting, reading with equanimity and knowing our reactions have more to do with us than the writer.

    If you are interested in reading my review, I have linked it here:
    http://wp.me/s1nUrn-wild

    Great post, thoughtful reflections, thank you for sharing.

    • Thanks so much, Claire. I look forward to reading your review. Your comments remind me of how urged friends to read Jonathan Franzen’s novel Freedom; I even bought some copies to give to friends. I loved the book and wanted to talk about it. The reactions were sobering—most liked it but one had reservations and one loathed it. The latter is a West Virginian who didn’t find Franzen’s take on his state fair or amusing. So I agree it’s deeply personal our reactions, like mine to Nabokov in Speak, Memory, which I chose to take personally and get angry about.

  9. Great post. Glad I found this blog because of this post.
    I guess there will be bouquets and brickbats for almost any book. Depends on who is reading it when. Different people will have different takes; and even the same person will have different takes on the same book at different times in their life, depending on their experiences, ability to understand things and personal mood.

  10. That was another excellent post today. You make it look so easy. Thanks so much for sharing. I really enjoyed reading it very much. Have a wonderful day!

    Enjoy writing? Join Us Today –

    Writers Wanted

  11. While the nub of this debate – authenticity vis-à-vis artifice – could generate much mileage, spill endless inkwells of time, and remain interesting notwithstanding the tedium… I would concur with Janice’s comments above, to which I’d merely add this: Are we not all “fictioneers”, regardless of whether we are scribbling fiction-prose, poetry or facto-fiction memoirs? Are we not permanently in the process of trans-figuring, trans-lating, trans-posing and trans-forming ourselves, experiences, characters and ‘other’ (the “je-suis-un-autre” who resides within us – A. Rimbaud) with a view to shifting it all into the necessary trans-port (the book, the oeuvre, the opus, the poem, the artwork)? We are trans- hence “fictioneers”. The banality of the “is it or is it not authentic” debate misses not only the essence of… but fails to comprehend the creative manifold or transport in itself…
    I thoroughly enjoyed your post and your capacity to comment and dialogue on your own work. Much appreciated.
    Take care.

  12. In a prose-writing class where I workshopped bits and pieces of a memoir I’m writing, the biggest problem most had was that I didn’t show enough of myself. Faced with this challenge, I find it has been difficult, and I’m not sure why. Nice post, and Go, Bucks! Jane (BA in Journalism, 1985) 🙂

    • Jane, that was hard for me too. I think one must treat readers as friends, and it helps to read successful memoirs in which the writer’s persona is open and confident—I like Cheryl Strayed in Wild, of course, and Mary Karr in Lit. It’s kind of another technique, too, a way of wooing readers. So maybe in real like you are private and reserved—most writers are—but on the page you let people in, share the part of yourself that’s open and friendly and confident.

  13. This was a great read….please checkout my own blog and comment any tips……go easy thouigh….I’m only 14………….http://daysofdayzy.wordpress.com/

  14. Thank heaven for a smart, literate conversation about this!

    My memoir of working retail came out last April, in paperback yesterday, and the most stressful part of it has been the stunning (to me) and vicious personal attacks left by random people on Amazon in the guise of “reviews.” Holy hell. In my worst nightmares, I could not have foreseen the animosity; my personal favorite being the woman who wrote (in a place that is both permanent and public and to which no author dare reply) “I actually started to hate her.”

    Having seen the appalling nastiness tossed at Elizabeth Gilbert for daring to
    actually 1) have a great adventure; 2) travel freely; 3) fall in love; 4) make a ton dough from her book/movie about all of that, I did expect some of this…

    Your points about people’s psychic wounds are wise. It became much clearer to me that, in discussing the great two taboos of American life (race and class) I was going to get hammered. I chose to place myself in context — dropping from the salaried safety of a Daily News staff job to $11/hr, having grown up with money and very cool prior career — but was taken to the woodshed repeatedly for my snobbery, elitism, privilege, whining….etc.

    It’s instructive how few readers have the critical ability to say “it’s just a book” and realize that a narrative voice is a deliberate choice. It’s one part of who we are, but hardly the whole shebang. Gah!

    http://malledthebook.com/

  15. Clearly, I should have made my morning coffee before sitting down to read your post and comment thread, Richard. I’m still sitting here, coffee-less. My take on Wild? I couldn’t put it down, appreciated Strayed for entertaining me, admired her for the journey and her way of writing about it, and felt a satisfying quid pro quo (way more than my money’s worth). I may have glimpsed a bit of “calculation” in the background, but for heaven’s sake, I like that aspect, and to me it comes across as tough and self-aware. Wild works for me on a number of levels: pure entertainment — it’s a whale of a tale; as a metaphorand encourager for my own struggles to write even though I’ve started late and am essentially uncredentialed; as a therapy clue for why I spent several years in my early twenties behaving as I did and the probable link to my dad’s death and mother’s loss to me through mental illness. So, good on Cheryl. I’ve recommended Wild to everyone I know.

  16. After reading about the reviews on Strayed’s memoir/journey, I’m not particularily interested anymore in reading memoirs that may have a brazen cathartic, yet nearly flaunting self-disclosure and nearly self-destructive elements. It just doesn’t help me at this point in life. Sure it’s entertaining in a way to read it which is what any author wants.

    Many of us live interesting, less flamboyant lives yet can provide just as much insight.

    I agree that writers and bloggers may write in a calculated way that only reveals “likeable” or palatable facets of oneself. But the reality is that if I really revealed all my angst to a pile of strangers as a gift to the world and expect to get some “support” from strangers, I’ve lost sight of the importance/role of in-person family and friends who know me.

  17. Bravo! what a treat to read – all of it. All of the discussion has merit. Isn’t writing just the best!

  18. If that lady is so scandalized by the hairy and sweaty, she must have a hard time getting through many books. Great post!

  19. Jessica

    I don’t understand why you’re so defensive about people hating WILD.

    You openly admit to disliking Nabokov, so why the hypocrisy?

    Strayed was a narcissistic, whiny, self-involved jerk throughout WILD, and what she did to her mother’s horse is criminal and disgusting.

    You think the book was interesting, and you think people who disagree with you are…what? Wrong? Misguided? Maybe you should consider your own overblown reactions to other people’s reactions before casting stones.

    • Jessica, Your criticism is what my post is about! That I didn’t agree with her about Wild but that I’ve done the same thing. Like everybody. Like your excessively angry response here to a post that has already made your very point . . .

  20. Margaret Benbow

    Hi Richard, I greatly enjoyed your thoughtful post. You sorted through all the blather, and there was a lot of it, with a cool and knowing hand. You’re right: readers don’t have to agree about a book. I sort of worry about the a few of the more fragile Commenters here, who feel all threatened and wounded in their tender private parts because someone disagrees with them. Personally I enjoy a good robust literary birching, back and forth. It’s good for the skin and good for the soul. Thanks for giving as good as you got.

  21. A great post, and an evenhanded look at the different voices chiming in about Wild. I actually wasn’t aware of any bad press for the book. I thought I was the only one who couldn’t get through the book. The writing is beautiful, and, like you, I’m fascinated by the structure that Strayed uses in the book. But I lost interest in Strayed as the character. She seemed so deliberately self-destructive, and she never convinced me that her downfall all stemmed from the death of her mother. I know, she doesn’t have to convince all her readers. It’s memoir. I understand that. But it made me stop reading because I just wasn’t intereted anymore.

    • Thanks, Tina. That was the hardest aspect of the book for me, too, accepting her attribution of everything to her mother’s death. Yet it wasn’t a deal breaker for me; it was within the realm of possibility. And my own explanation for much of it—her temperament, her young writer’s journey—kind of went along with that, and the writerly part of it was portrayed right there in the foreground.

  22. Laura Sewell

    Hi. I found your blog by Googling “Cheryl Strayed’s sister,” because I would like to learn more about her (the sister). I think you’re spot-on in what you had to say about her, and the relationships and family dynamics. We’ll never know for certain, but it’s interesting.

    I loved “Wild.” Read it early on, before it became a bestseller, and have watched as it’s caught on (Oprah selection, etc. etc.). I don’t quite get the criticisms. I think we do what we can to report incidents in our lives, whether we write about them or tell them. Is the story I’ve told 50 times about something that happened when I was 8 accurate, or how I remember it, or how my father embellished it? I’ll never know for certain (but it’s interesting).

    Cheryl Strayed’s “Dear Sugar” columns on The Daily Rumpus are some of the most beautifully written essays I’ve ever come across. I’ve been reading them for almost two years without knowing who wrote them, and then she finally revealed herself earlier this year.

    I’m glad I discovered your blog in a sideways fashion, and look forward to reading more of it.

    • Laura, I’m so glad to meet someone who also picked up on and was fascinated by the family dynamic in Wild. Another tribute to Strayed, really, for giving us enough to speculate about. She didn’t need to explain it to death, may not have thought of doing so, and surely does not see it the same way any of her readers does. But just as we do with people we meet, we try to understand books in the same way, I think—that is, we assemble a theory from shards of evidence, a theory that says a lot about us, what we bring to the book. I’m glad my take resonated with yours.

      You make me want to read her Dear Sugar columns!

  23. Susan

    Interesting discussion here. What I find most interesting, more than the “haters” of Strayed’s work are the lovers who seem shocked that any reader could be less than wild about Wild, and the Dear Sugar columns. While I can recognize Strayed’s talents as a writer, I am also able to recognize her savvy marketing of self, an unavoidable fact when writing autobiographically, but neither Strayed as writer nor Strayed as subject does much for me as Reader. I think in part this has to do with the saturation of Strayed via social media and online interviews. Is this Strayed’s fault? Yes and no. Her interview with Terry Gross revealed a much more calculating side to her with regards to the timing of her Sugar reveal and the release of Wild, a calculation that came off as pretty cynical. It’s an odd dynamic and one that makes me question how much I am being manipulated as a reader vs. how much true laying bare of soul is actually happening in her work. Because that’s what people seem to love the most about Strayed in both Wild and Sugar, right? The raw honesty? But what happens with the writer reveals herself to not be so honest and when what’s been presented as raw is anything but? Seems like the same thing happened with Elizabeth Gilbert. The more readers got to know the real Gilbert, the less they liked what she was selling.