Posted on August 25, 2012 by Lou
In “The Problem with Memoirs,” New York Times entertainment critic Neil Genzlinger reviews four books published in early 2011 by little-known writers determined to tell their stories.
“There was a time,” he begins, “when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into snapshots of a broad historical moment.”
If you’re not a genius or famous and are considering such a venture, Genzlinger lets you have it. “Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon,” he proclaims, “the way God intended.”
Characterizing the modern era as one of “oversharing,” Genzlinger shows little mercy for his fellow human sufferers and grumbles about memoirs which have been “… disgorged by virtually everyone who has ever had cancer, been anorexic, battled depression, lost weight. By anyone who has ever taught an underprivileged child, adopted an underprivileged child or been an underprivileged child. By anyone raised in the ‘60s, ‘70s or ‘80s, not to mention the ‘50s, ‘40s or ‘30s. Owned a dog. Run a marathon. Found religion. Held a job”.
Of the four books he reviews, he hated three. I wish Neil well when he sets out to sum up his own life in print.
Now there’s a new breed of memoirist loose on the literary world and I’m afraid I’m one of them.
A much more forgiving standard applies to bloggers, particularly those of us who write “niche” blogs. That’s when you ruminate freely about – well – whatever you like. There are millions – maybe billions – of these sites in the universe. I call them “public diaries.”
In November, 2010, I wrote that “Not long ago, diaries were private matters, rarely read by anyone except the writer.”
Grandma dies. Family members rummage through the trunk in the attic and discover her secret journal. It reveals personal details of a past life that no one – not even grandpa – imagined.
Or researchers and historians scour through old diaries to glean impressions and facts about the civil war, women’s suffrage and the depression.
But that’s all changed by the internet. Almost everything is now available and accessible instantly and without much mystery.
I’ve considered what it means to be your own editor. If your pieces are not being regularly aggregated, you probably serve not only as the sole contributor to your blog but also its gatekeeper.
In May, 2011, I posted Editing Yourself, in which I warned readers to “be very careful when you publish something without anybody else looking at it.” This, I said, is “particularly true these days, when publishing means pressing a key on your computer.”
You have to step outside yourself, read what you’ve written and decide if it’s ready to go. You have to know when to stop flipping paragraphs, tinkering around with sentences and searching for synonyms.
Then I sprinkled in detail about my own experience:
In the past, my work as a reporter and publicist was mostly collaborative. I had editors and had been one myself. When I was a staff and freelance writer, I would sometimes become furious over changes others made to my “copy.”
I indirectly tackled the issue of accountability:
So now I’m a blogger: picking my subject, balancing my viewpoint, cutting out the fat.
My biggest challenge is finding the right combination of the topical and the personal. This post, for example, obviously leans heavily toward the personal.
But I made a deal with my editor to let this one slide.
Recently, personal themes have become more central to my blog:
I’ve written posts about my roots in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, my political and professional formation in Brattleboro and Montpelier, Vermont and my painful transition when I was 30 to Southern California. I’ve ruminated on my ideological and psychological attachment to the Labor Movement and disclosed details about my role as a parent and my divorce(s).
I’ve now decided to use past and future pieces as raw material and as an outline for an E-Book which I hope to E-Publish (along with some printed “hard copies”) within a year or two.
Of course I’d like to grab the attention of the Neil Genzlingers of the world, if nothing more than to have them ask: Who the hell is this guy and why on earth should we give a damn?
The current and upcoming autobiographical-style pieces will post on my home page and in a new section of my site called “Book Pages.”
Writing an E-Book won’t earn me a lot of money but will be a commercial venture. Unknowns and first-timers are pricing low – sometimes 99 cents – to attract an audience. Like everything else internet-related, E-Publishing is a transformational medium with ever-changing demands on those wanting to climb on board.
In the past, I’ve always been pretty good at adapting my writing to different circumstances. I got through college by knocking out papers which alluded to the assignment, drifted dangerously off point, but then cleverly circled back to the topic at hand (a habit I still have).
As an “advocacy journalist” I explored my subject and then discreetly insert myself into the piece.
I made a living in Los Angeles by converting personal and journalistic writing into “communications.”
As a generic public relations guy, I could extract the core message from my corporate client and then put that into concise and appropriate “language.” As a Labor Communications Specialist, I intuitively and instantly knew the idiom of “solidarity.” This time, as a true believer.
To keep readers engaged, bloggers who aspire to be memoirists must decide what the book is about and figure out how to develop the theme and organize the material. I’ve ruled out a chronological narration. That would be pretentious.
(If it were fiction, character development and action would drive the plot. The novelist can create an “everyman” persona to tell the story of a larger-than-life protagonist: Nick Carraway on Gatsby; Ishmael on Ahab. Or he can let the reader watch the narrator in the act of self-discovery – we know more about Huckleberry Finn and Holden Caulfield than these boys know about themselves).
What’s my literary device?
It would be useful, for example, if I could claim to have undergone a dramatic transformation of political values. But I came of age on the left and still operate in this sphere.
Except – and maybe here I’ll stir the pot a bit – I have become more mainstream and parochial about America’s role in the world.
Like many among my generation, I spent much of my political life appalled by post-World War II intervention by the U.S.: CIA-led coups in Iran, Guatemala and Chile, support for dictators in South Korea, El Salvador and Greece; and, worst of all, by the War in Vietnam.
Historical context, which comes with age, makes those “excesses” an understandable – if not forgivable – consequence of a “liberal” foreign policy. This view is based on the premise – which I’ve come to accept – that the Untied States saved the modern world: first by defeating Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, then by winning (I did say winning) the cold war.
Though I’m not exactly a “revisionist, ” I am, I suppose, at odds with Howard Zinn, Noam Chompsky, Chris Hedges and maybe even Naomi Klein.
Despite my willingness to embrace some common notions about American “interests” (distinct from corporate interests), I have mostly stayed put on the left and – in particular – kept faith, I hope, with the American working-class.
In this regard I consider myself to be quite radical, believing that the decline in American unions may be the worst thing that’s happened in this country in my lifetime.
As always, the inconsistencies in my belief system are fair game for criticism and ridicule.