Salman Rushdie on the novel’s debt to memoir, memoir’s debt to New Journalism—and why the novel is harder than either.
The foment over Salman Rushdie’s new memoir led me in a roundabout way to interviews with him on YouTube. One of the best is the long talk above, recorded at Emory University, when he was in the midst of writing Joseph Anton—apparently he wrote some of it there—because he drills into memoir’s granular issues. I got the sense in this and other early interviews before the book was finished that Rushdie, this erudite novelist, was very actively educating himself about memoir.
How could he not be? He’d probably paid some attention during his career to the memoir boom, but study is in order when you begin to write a book in a new genre. So study he did, into journalism and memoir. That is, into the poles of nonfiction. And one can watch the process of Rushdie’s self-education happening on YouTube. Some of his insights are surprising, maybe idiosyncratic, and others are rather scholarly.
In one interview he confesses, “I don’t actually understand the difference between autobiography and memoir.” That would be a shockingly untutored admission for anyone in the academic literary world—for anyone who’s been to writing conferences and workshops or read any of the stream of books on memoir that take pains, first, to set it apart from autobiography. Maybe Rushdie’s confusion is reflected in the length of Joseph Anton, a baby whale at 656 pages. More likely, he had a big story to tell, a big reputation, a big publisher, and a big market.
By the time of the Emory interview, Rushdie had done enough research, probably building on his existing knowledge as a literary man, to name with confidence the world’s first memoir—and not Augustine’s Confessions like you might suppose:
Early memoirs by St. Augustine, St. John, and St. Teresa were written as confessions to God, or about their relationship with God, not as what we’d consider memoirs. The Confessions of Rousseau  is the first modern autobiography. He kind of chickened out by not publishing it in his lifetime. But there is an intent there [to tell the truth about his life in the world]. Nobody had ever understood that it was interesting to tell your own story.
What happened to literature with Rousseau’s memoir, Rushdie says, was personal “self awareness.” Novels made use of this newly discovered power:
The most famous novels of the eighteenth century pretended to be memoirs—Tristram Shandy and Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travels. It was a marketing device of the time. And Dickens had a very biographical view of fiction. He liked to tie up all the loose ends. I don’t know and I don’t care what my characters do after the book ends. But he did care. And he told you about what happened to them—and their dogs.
In his study of the memoir Rushdie learned a dismal truth—maybe he relearned it since it would seem true of the novel as well: “Other people’s work doesn’t help really. You have to find your own solutions to the story you have to tell. It’s useful to see how other people skinned the cat, but you have to skin your own cat.”
At least, in Rushdie’s reckoning, the memoirist faces an easier task than the novelist, who must answer many more questions of presentation: “In the novel you have to answer a what question: What story am I telling? Then you have to answer a who question: Whose story am I telling? Then you have to answer a why question: Why am I telling this story? And finally you have to answer a how question: How do I tell this story? And the ‘how’ question is the most difficult of all.”
Memoirists only have the “how question,” he says. “So it’s a little easier. Three quarters . . . that’s already there.”
He credits Oprah Winfrey and the confessional culture she has created for memoir’s current boom, but links it also, rather surprisingly, to the New Journalism of the late 1960s and 1970s that borrowed back from the novel tools now associated with fiction, such as scene, dialogue, and a involved or intimate point of view. He also reveals that he’s studied the most popular recent literary memoirs:
What you have to do on the page is the same thing you have to do in a novel, which is to make people come to life. Including the person bearing your own name. Because if you can’t make them live on the page, it doesn’t matter that they really lived. The reader doesn’t experience them as living. In that sense it’s completely novelistic. If you look at the best examples of the memoir genre, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club, Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, the best of them are novelistic in that way. It derives from the earlier form we call New Journalism, where journalism decided to put on some of the clothes of the novel.
Writers like George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer in his nonfiction, Hunter S. Thompson in his book on the Hell’s Angels, deliberately wrote those books novelistically, with all the techniques of the novel. And it created a new form, one element of which was participation. If George Plimpton was going to write about Mohammed Ali, he was going to get in the ring with Mohammed Ali; if he was going to write about the New York Yankees, he is going to get on the field. The journalist enacts the drama he is writing about. And out of that came the New Journalism, which is really extraordinary.
In the next generation, what happened with the writing of memoir was the use of the novelistic technique in the writing of autobiography. Of course there are problems of truth. For example, verbatim dialogue. It’s very difficult to believe someone writing about their childhood and what their mother said to their father, and it’s in inverted commas as direct speech. I don’t care how good people’s memories are, there’s a sense that a convention is being used: that to represent the conversations that dialogue is being partly if not completely made up. And there’s sort of not a way around that—you sort of have to do it. That’s how it is like a novel. You’re making it up in the service of truth if you’re doing it properly.
Rushdie spoke to how a memoirist enhances his credibility: “You have to be harsher on yourself than anyone else. It’s self-glorifying to begin with to say ‘I’m going to write 500 pages about me.’ You have to be ruthlessly honest about yourself. You have to describe yourself more critically than you do other people.”
I mentioned to a fiction writer that Rushdie has chosen to tell his memoir with an unusual and interesting strategy, in the novelistic and distancing third person, writing about himself a la Norman Mailer in his nonfiction as “he,” and my acquaintance was amused: “That was probably a good move for someone with an ego so big.”
So one lives with the perception one has created. Indeed Rushdie seems to suffer from no lack of confidence. But I have to admire him for surviving mentally and emotionally, let alone physically, for a decade with a sentence of death-by-terrorist on his head. And now he’s revealed that decade in hiding—and apparently much of his life story—in a memoir. His choice might have been different in another time:
The market for fiction has dwindled. In terms of numbers of books being sold, nonfiction is king at this time. Not that it will always be that way. The way people want to see their world described changes. Right now, people seem to need some reassurance that this really happened. At other times, they didn’t want that; they wanted a more imaginative representation. There are times when you want your artists to dream for you; there are other times when you want to be given the facts. In twenty years, nobody might be reading memoirs. The only thing is to live in your time and do the best you can.