Because rejection letters are sent to your agent, not you, they include information an editor might finesse differently if you were the recipient. But writers do read their rejection letters. When I was selling the manuscript of my new memoir, My Unsentimental Education, I was intrigued by a letter that began: “It’s just too bad her childhood wasn’t worse!”
The letter added that the editor couldn’t position a memoir that didn’t depict crisis: “I need something searing, hard-hitting.” My agent and I understood. Memoir is synonymous with recovery memoir. I love memoirs, including some that depict life lived in extremis. But I miss the big genre I first fell in love with.
Fifteen years ago, I read The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, Truth Serum by Bernard Cooper, A Romantic Education by Patricia Hampl, The Color of Water by James McBride, Mountain City by Gregory Martin, and that pioneering exemplar first published in 1977 as “autobiography” because no one called them memoirs yet, Stop-Time by Frank Conroy. I apologize if I’ve failed to mention your favorite memoir that predates the recovery memoir. These are mine. Filled with dramatic scenes and nearly aphoristic insight about the individual’s relation to history, culture, and community, they delivered exciting new reasons to read.
Yet within a decade, the ordinary person’s memoir—which in the 1990s appeared as a new rendition of a genre once reserved for celebrities and statesmen—became the recovery memoir. There are beautiful recovery memoirs: Bad Blood by Lorna Sage, Son of A Gun by Justin St. Germain, The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls, Sorrow Without Dreams by Peter Handke, Darkness Visible by William Styron. These books are triumphs of candor, intelligence, and great writing.
They provide wisdom and consolation for readers for whom the violence, the trauma, the poverty, or the sorrow is familiar. And because these books resist oversimplification, they remind readers who haven’t experienced this precise trouble except vicariously that pain isn’t overcome, just incorporated. They increase our perspective and maybe even prepare us if our luck should fail.
But there are unbeautiful recovery memoirs too. As I read my way out of the 1990s into the early 2000s, subjects grew more salacious. Masochistic addictions. Compulsive Everybehaviors. Liking anal sex too much. The memoir became therapeutic: a narrative offshoot of self-help. But these books are marketable:
- The premise can be described in a phrase.
- They have a feel-good arc: 1) the narrator suffers; 2) the narrator seeks relief; 3) the narrator overcomes.
- They have a built-in audience: fellow sufferers.
- Readers absorb them with perturbed yet titillated voyeurism.
But I object for a few reasons. First, positioning the memoir as a narrative form of therapy can sell false hope. As Emily Fox Gordon writes, the recovery memoir’s sequence of affliction, suffering, and triumph is a simplistic “tripartite lie.”
And the recovery memoir’s dominance means that many good first-person nonfiction books get wedged into this subgenre, to their detriment. Marcia Aldrich’s Girl Rearing, a critique of middle-class definitions of femininity, was reviewed as a failed recovery memoir. Alexandra Styron’s shrewd and compassionate book Reading My Father was marketed as “her struggle” to escape William Styron’s fame and mental illness, though it’s more purely a biography, albeit one enhanced by personal observation, like Julian Bell’s biography of Virginia Woolf, which was never described as “his struggle.”
But the worst consequence of narrowing a rich genre into a slender subgenre is that the subgenre feels tapped out. We’ve all heard about memoir exhaustion, but perhaps we’re tired of uninspiring recovery memoirs. And most afflictions have been covered now. Agent Terra Chalberg recently said that if there’s a recovery memoir on a subject that’s “the best of its genre,” she doesn’t see a need for more.
While the best memoirs I know depict hardship, hardship is a station or two on a longer trek. I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place by Howard Norman depicts grief but also swans, Inuit animism, the effect of Ken Burns’ documentary about the Civil War on an entire town, well-digging, haplessness, privilege. It asks why power is wielded in ways cruel and kind, a question that used to be theological.
Winter Journal by Paul Auster, The Answer to the Riddle Is Me by David S. MacLean, Life Would Be So Perfect If I Lived in That House by Meghan Daum, A Door in the Ocean by David McGlynn: these memoirs depict trouble, but recovery isn’t the aim. On every page, a smart narrator ponders human desires, freedoms, fears, impasses. And these books manifest in shapes so variable the idea of a storytelling arc seems renewable too—as motley and startling as a dream.
Memoirs this good are hard to find now. Meanwhile, the essay collection is the new-old thing, which means readers still want first-person narratives exploring the intersection of the self with the wider world, not just the self. And if some stories are so big they’re novels, then some essaylike forays are so big they’re memoirs. Let’s remove restrictive parameters—in content and form—and give back to the memoir the freedom to be as unpredictable and risky as the essay.
Because our neural pathways move us too slickly from “memoir” to “trauma.”
At a literary gathering, I saw an acquaintance, a reader, who asked if I had a new book coming out. I did, I said, a memoir. She asked me to describe it. I can’t in a phrase, but this was conversation, not an elevator pitch, so I said, “It’s about how I moved almost too quickly from a blue-collar life into the professional class, feeling like an interloper. So I dated what the book flap copy calls ‘blue-collar men.’ But most were unemployed, or small-time drug dealers, or guys in bands.”
She looked puzzled: “That was traumatic?”
I recalled when my previous memoir came out—about being the white mother of a black child in a small Texas town, a complicated but not consistently harrowing experience—and I found myself at a book festival, chatting with other memoir writers, feeling nearly apologetic I hadn’t suffered. In interviews, reporters made me sound sadder than I was, or had been. At this new gathering, I considered assuming a facial expression that might suggest I’d suffered and overcome. Then I thought: no, I’m doing my part to take back this big genre from a small connotation. “Not traumatic,” I said, “but interesting and sometimes even funny.”
I explained that my new book was about how a few decades of feminism won’t undo centuries of convention about gender and social stature, the persistent notion that men can date or marry women with less status but if a woman does, it’s a scandal. “Not every man wants an equal, anyway,” I said. The woman, who’d come of age just after the feminist movement , said this felt true to her experience too. I extemporized cheerfully: “So it probably speaks to any woman who’s had both aspirations and strange dates.” She looked bewildered again. “Memoir?”
Because the term suggests crisis and recovery now, I worry that readers who’ll like the books I’ve written will be scared off by the marketing term and that readers looking for recovery memoirs will feel cheated. Memoir means “based in memory,” but in the hive-mind it means “memory of trauma.” I want memoir to mean based in any memory that includes curiosity, analysis, and dissent. I want memoirs to suss out causes, reasons, effects, unintended sideeffects. I want a memoir to be smart and exciting too, a page-turner: an existential mystery story.
The very first memoirs were written by famous people. A few decades ago, the genre democratized, a change implying that if the writing was good enough, that if insights cut deep enough, then ordinary people had stories to tell. A memoir that depicts discovery might or might not also depict recovery. But any good memoir requires more than a high-concept life. Meanwhile, think of what we’re missing: conundrums, conjecture, predicaments, even comedy. Infinite approaches and readers just waiting. Or perhaps it’s me just waiting and I’m being narcissistic—as memoir lovers are often said to be—and projecting. But, strictly speaking, wanting to learn about others’ lives is not narcissistic, not even.Debra Monroe is the author of two story collections, two novels, and two memoirs: On the Outskirts of Normal and My Unsentimental Education, which is published today.