A bestselling nonfiction writer offers spirited commentary about memoir, the literary form that has become synonymous with her name.
Personal narrative has exploded in popularity over the last 20 years. Yet, as Karr (Lit: A Memoir, 2009, etc.) points out, memoir still struggles to attain literary respectability. “There is a lingering snobbery in the literary world,” she writes, “that wants to disqualify what is broadly called nonfiction from the category of ‘literature.’ ” In this book, Karr offers both an apology for and a sharp-eyed exploration of this form born from her years as a practitioner as well as a distinguished English professor at Syracuse University. She begins by considering classroom “experiments” she has conducted to show the slipperiness of memory and arguing the need to give latitude to writers tackling memoir. Writing with the intent to record what rings true rather than exact is one thing; writing with the intent to lie is another. Voice is another critical aspect of any memoir that manages to endure through time. By examining works by writers as diverse as Frank McCourt and Vladimir Nabokov, Karr demonstrates that it is in fact the very thing by which a great memoir “lives or dies.” Rather than focus on the narrative truism of “show-don’t-tell,” Karr thoughtfully elaborates on what she calls “carnality”—the ability to transform memory into a multisensory experience—for the reader. When wed to a desire to move beyond the traps of ego and render personal “psychic struggle” honestly and without fear, carnality can lead to writing that not only “wring[s] some truth from the godawful mess of a single life,” but also connects deeply with readers. Karr’s sassy Texas wit and her down-to-earth observations about both the memoir form and how to approach it combine to make for lively and inspiring reading.
A generous and singularly insightful examination of memoir.