Saturday, January 16, 2010

Memoirs democratize literature

As someone who generally doesn't read memoirs I never understood all the hoopla. There is no doubt that memoir has been the ascending form in the last decade, to the detriment of fiction on many accounts, including siphoning readership. I've been trying to get my mind around it. Is it somehow endemic of the cultural 'dumbing-down' of the general population? The eclipse of book-literacy by an image-based culture that is obsessed with gossip (so called info-tainment)? I think it's more than that. Perhaps the main question is, why have we lost our taste for fiction? To the point of becoming downright distrustful of it? It's not only in the world of books, but also in other media like TV. Reality television has displaced the sitcom for instance. In this weekend's Gazette my friend the writer Joel Yanofsky makes a similar point. He puts it this way: "What reality shows did for television over the last decade, the memoir seems to be doing for literature..." What Joel means is to make it accessible, democratizing it. The memoir does seem to be supplanting the novel. Writers with literary aspirations (even some with established careers) are gaining notoriety by writing memoirs. Perhaps, because they realize that in today's marketplace writing a memoir (even if it's fictional eg. James Frey) is the only surefire way to sell units. In his piece Yanofsky stops from going the analytical distance, asking the probing questions about what it means and I think the novelists should take some of the blame too. Writers have been cannabilizing their craft for a long time, de-mystifying and undermining it. The novel has been de-constructed to death in academia. Literary novelists have been undermining what they do by writing navel-gazing, meta-fictions, novels that are more interested in the nature and craft of novel-writing than telling a good story. What can be more boring (and less relevant) to readers than stories that are meant to explore the line between fact and fiction. In other words, what's happened over the last four or five decades is the delegitimization of the craft. Novelists have been suspicious and mistrustful of their own craft, so why shouldn't readers be doubtful. Perhaps the attraction of the public to memoirs has demonstrated simply that they want stories to believe in. And if novelists don't believe in their stories why should anyone else? Fiction has always been comprised of healthy doses of memoir. What the novel possesses that the memoir, because of its fidelity to hard fact does not, is the distillation of meaning and truth that only a work of the imagination can provide.

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