Whither the postmodern memoir?

Moby Dick Kabob x

 

Beyond ‘crazy shit’ content: stories that intrigue, inform, illuminate.

 I want to believe we can think of memoir in terms of the author’s personal connection to the ideas in the book; that the form, at its best, can use personal experience to gather up the distinct threads of a book and bring them together into a narrative of thought that is more compelling and nuanced than a simple summary of the crazy shit that happened. Perhaps memoir can be about a place, a state, or about an entire generation and less about trafficking in humiliation or confessing some pain, loss, or sorrow.

—Steven Church

It’s probably inevitable, having written a traditional memoir myself, that I’d become smitten with nontraditional forms. Or taken at least with the idea of experimental memoirs, which offer the hope that they can truthfully reflect contemporary life. The risk, of course, is that by abandoning a chain of dramatic past events as narrative propulsion, they bore or anger readers. Postmodernism implies confusion and fracture, not a clean narrative line.

Shards of culture & life united.

Shards of culture & life threads united.

Which isn’t exactly what Steven Church argues for—he seems after a realistically sideways and nuanced approach—in “On the ‘Stealth Memoir’ and the Confessional Expectation,” a recent post at his site My Atomic Angst. Church, author most recently of The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst, addresses how the memoir “might accomplish some of the aims of memoir while focusing on subjects outside the self or by using different forms and styles.”

As he puts it in explaining his new book:

   OK, so the book is about the nuclear fear I felt growing up in Kansas in the 70’s and 80’s and how the made-for-TV post-apocalyptic movie, The Day After (set and filmed in my hometown of Lawrence, KS) brought these fears home in more ways than one. It’s also about the violent, apocalyptic history of Lawrence and of Kansas, culminating with a 2007 F-5 tornado that destroyed my father’s hometown of Greensburg in southwest Kansas. It’s also about the movie itself and the lasting cultural resonance of a film that even the director, Nicholas Meyer told me he didn’t consider art but instead a giant “public service announcement,” a video essay of sorts that at the time garnered the 2nd highest Nielson rating in history. And finally, the book is about the seemingly sudden and apocalyptic implosion of my parents’ marriage. The book uses a variety of forms and styles, from outright fiction and fabrication to more straightforward journalistic interview, memoir and film criticism.

Okay, sounds pretty postmodern. In the best sense: layered, formally complex and experimental, discursive, genre blurring. Church says one of his challenges in writing this book was that his own experience with the movie, other than as a scared watcher, was limited. His parents’ divorce likewise was only one thread—and, again, he didn’t have great material there (narratively speaking) but, instead, in real life, gained a happier mother.

He desperately wanted to avoid having his publisher label his book a memoir:

I begged, in fact, during production, that it not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. . . .

I tell myself and my students that it’s often better to begin by looking away from the personal, by starting not with confession but curiosity. I did this with my book because I believed it would make it a better book and because I knew the material was there anyway, fueling much of what I was writing about. You don’t have to see the engine to know it’s running. But whether I wanted to write about it or not divorce was a big part of 80’s culture. It was one kind of apocalypse that defined those years—the end of one reality and the beginning of a new, somewhat alien world; and as such it made a good literary device. I also tell my students that their responsibility as a nonfiction writer is to be an ethical and efficient parasite. If you’re going to use the personal, the confessional to explore some larger ideas, your responsibility is to do it for very good reasons and to do it well, with the minimum amount of collateral damage. In the 80’s divorces were as hot as parachute pants, Def Leppard, and post-apocalyptic fantasy.

Ironically, he says a memoiristic thread late in the book—helping his father and aunt clean up after that apocalyptic tornado—brings the threads in his story together.

• • •

Some recommended postmodern memoirs

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

A lighthearted & clever approach to memoir.

Steven Church’s stimulating essay led me in a roundabout way to Hugh Ryan’s take on the postmodern memoir for Associated Writing Programs. Ryan shows he knows what he’s talking about in his first paragraph:

As the literary descendent of biography and journalism, it is no wonder that memoir (as a genre), has a rocky relationship with the truth. Like the artistic child born to scientific parents, it defies expectations. On the one hand, it is reportage, expected to convey facts; on the other, it is art, expected to reinvent the world.

Quite simply but ambitiously he asks whether it is “possible for writers who perceive the world as a collection of competing truths, where the ‘real’ answer may never be known, to honestly write a work of nonfiction? And if so, what would it look like?” He observes that writers who cut their teeth as readers on the great modernists, from James Joyce to Joseph Heller—and, I’d add, raised in a fractured, mediated world—are still trying to answer that question.

Ryan explains:

As the children raised in this chaotic literary moment begin to write their memoirs, it is not surprising that they are looking to recreate this sense of confusion. For these authors, it is not enough to assume that readers acknowledge the unknowability of objective fact. They are consciously creating books in which the unreliable narrator is themselves. They are not trying to report on their lives from the outside, but rather, to replicate for the reader the experience of living them.

Like the original postmodernists, they are interested in exploring those areas where the metanarrative of truth is at best useless, and at worst, stands in the way of actual comprehension. By highlighting their own bias and doubt, they are presenting a more honest depiction of life. Furthermore, while they diminish the trust of the reader in the author-as-narrator, they strengthen the reader’s trust in the author-as-writer: in a genre rocked by scandal, the writer who admits her own faults seems more reliable than the writer who presents herself as perfect. This is a dangerous line to walk, and the writer who goes too far stands the chance of losing all authority and being disregarded.

He gives these examples of postmodern memoirs, recommended by implication:

Wickersham Memoir

• Joan Wickersham’s second-person The Suicide Index: Putting My Father’s Death in Order, an annotation on a larger story, was widely raved, including by Publishers Weekly;

DJ Waldie’s celebrated Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir, a third-person “story of alienation so profound it almost prevents him from writing his own life”;

• Ann Marlowe’s How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, structured as a dictionary,not chronological, but it does follow an internal order separate from the arbitrary progression of the alphabet . . . [H]er nonlinear structure is an effort to call her own story into question”;

• Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, like the previous arranged alphabetically, it’s “filled with charts and illustrations, making for a more playful text,” an anti-memoir that “consciously avoids the neat linearity of most nonfiction”;

Flynn Memoir

• Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City grapples with the fiction of easy facts, even turning part of it into a surrealist play, the obviously fictional move reflecting his own uncertain experience;

Lauren Slater’s Lying, a memoir of epilepsy in which shedoes not tell us one lie and then expose herself; rather, she maintains multiple truths at the same time, allowing us to pick and choose between them.”

I’d add Church’s The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst as worth looking at. But lest we get too excited about postmodern possibilities, Ryan ends with a warning and a prediction:

The backlash against postmodernism is already going strong. Postmodern has become a dirty word, meant to convey something confusing, precious, pretentious, or just downright sloppy. When it was born, it was David fighting the Goliath of Modernism. Now it has become the dominant force, and with nothing to rage against, it seems useless. A genre designed to take things apart cannot stand alone. The New Sincerity movement, which combines postmodernism’s playfulness and rejection of universal truth with the search for personal meaning and real emotion, is gaining ascendency-and rightfully so. It is time we moved on.

But postmodernism still has lessons to teach us. They lie (and oh, how skillfully they lie) in nonfiction. As memoir struggles to be recognized as art, it must find new ways to deal with the truth, when the truth is a confused and confusing thing.

You can read his whole essay, at least for a time, here. I googled New Sincerity and apparently there actually is such thing. As someone helplessly and hopelessly sincere himself, I’m all for it—I think, though it seems enough work for now to grasp postmodernism.

Here’s Amy Krouse Rosenthal’s postmodern approach to marketing her memoir Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life:

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10 Comments

Filed under braids, threads, experimental, memoir, modernism/postmodernism, narrative, structure

10 responses to “Whither the postmodern memoir?

  1. Hi, Richard. I really like the sentence “Postmodernism implies confusion and fracture, not a clean narrative line.” It exactly describes what I (as a born-again formalist) find so frustrating about postmodernism: I’m always willing to try to understand it, but feel that I achieve understanding of it only in chance gleams, which to someone trying to achieve a comprehensive understanding of a phenomenon, is annoying. I’ve often felt shut out of both memoir (because nonfiction has seemed too constrictive as a choice) and postmodernism (because it isn’t restrictive enough), so maybe something like Rosenthal’s book (which appeals to me, I have to say) is the way to go as a basic primer of postmodernism and memoir. And your memoir, when it comes out, whether postmodern or not, is one I would like to read.

    • Thanks, Victoria. I’d also recommend Dinty Moore’s Between Panic and Desire, my favorite postmodern memoir so far, though I gave the floor to others in this post and didn’t mention it.

  2. I saw Stephen speak at a panel at this year’s AWP about the “stealth memoir.” This is my style of memoir, one where the narrator/author isn’t the sun of the book’s universe.

    It was a fascinating panel, which included Joe Mackall, among others. Most of them fought the title of memoir for their books, feeling it was more about other stuff that happened, but included a personal and heart-felt narrator.

    I always come back to your post, Richard, about “Gatsby as Memoir”. On the memoir continuum, we might put “Gatsby” on one end and “Eat, Pray, Love” on the other.

    Memoir needs some research, and research will push a memoir towards stealth as it moves the attention away from the self. A good thing, most of the time.

    • Good points, Brendan. And I might have done Church mild violence by putting his “stealth memoir” in with the postmodern camp. The ones I have read are very involving, bridging the gap between the emotional appeal of the traditional memoir and the intellectual approach of the postmodern. Of course, memoir sells and so publishers want to use that label.

  3. Always, you open the curtain a bit wider. Thanks,

  4. This post was as chock full of fascinating ideas as a fruitcake is of –whatever is in fruitcake. Dense, at any rate. The only one on your list I’ve read is Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index, which I enjoyed, admired, and appreciated because she did break up the traditional linear narrative. It seemed appropriate to the disorienting, confusing, incomprehensible suicide of her father, form arising from content. I suppose it depends on the the subject matter, the writer’s sensibility and way of experiencing the world, and intentions. Church is certainly articulate about his own intentions. Thanks for a very rich post, Richard.

    • Thanks, Paulette. I hadn’t read most of them myself—hence doing this as a note to my future reading and writing self. A place to start. I think Geoff Dyer’s work, which you have written about recently, fits in at least the stealth category if not completely postmodern.

  5. Good 2:00 in the morning, Richard. Fascinating post, and Chruch’s book intrigues me. I respect and appreciate every reason he gives for not wanting his book to be labeled “memoir,” but there is one line in the following paragraph I hope will not hinder others. Can you guess the sentence?

    “I begged, in fact, during production, that it not say “memoir” in the title or subtitle. I didn’t want it to be reduced to that one word label, perhaps because for the last few years, especially at conferences like the AWP conference, the “memoir” tag has been like the herpes of genre labels; but more importantly than labels, I wanted the book to behave differently than a traditional memoir. I wanted it to be something more like a book-length braided personal essay with fictional and journalistic elements. . . .”

    The line is the one about the AWP conference, tagging memoir “like the herpes of genre labels.” In other words, I think writers, especially young ones, are hindered by what others think instead of thinking for themselves.

    In fact, it takes me back to sixth grade when I wanted to sing a solo from The Sound of Music in a chorus competition among all the schools in my hometown. All my friends rolled their eyes because I had crossed the uncool line.

    It’s the only medal I own (and have kept all these years) because I won that competition and enjoyed every moment. I would not have had that experience if I had ignored my desire to sing and had been influenced by others.

    • Thanks, Darrelyn—I agree. I thought his line was funny, but it was somewhat news to me, not being a regular at AWP. It underscores that there are two literary cultures, academic literary and New York. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone in the New York camp disrespect memoir—it sells, it’s hot—while to some in academia it can appear uncool, mundane, or just set up false expectations, as Church implies, of a particular kind of narrative arc.