“I’m interested in knowing the secrets that connect human beings. At the very deepest level, all our secrets are the same.” – David Shields
Artists are whores, the lot of us, selling a bit of our souls in every work. And not unlike our sisters and brothers in the biblical sense of the word, we like to think we might offer our takers a glimpse of eternity. Even the most hermetic of painters, writers, performers and poets go a’whoring each time they bless their handlers to feed a work to the public for profit. Even the eensiest profit. Okay, less so for poets. But to say that memoir is whoring more so than any other art form is like saying the lifeblood of Picasso is absent from Guernica, or the avenues of Scorcese’s heart are not on display in Taxi Driver. All of great art, in a sense, is memoir, for is it not about personal truths and the way the artist sees? I was recently witness to Gordon Lish going on about memoir being cheap and whorish. “Write a memoir and you’re finished!”, he railed. I wonder what Nabokov would say to that? Although he commenced writing what would become his memoir Speak, Memory, and Lolita during the same period of time, the former debuted in 1951 followed by Lolita in 1955.The best of memoir can turn the experiences and memories of a life, of a particular vision into work that often takes us through a dark journey to ultimately expose the shimmering there which spellbinds us all.
Aside from not being fraudulent, why must there be literary rules at all concerning the way we tell our stories? An account of life is either compelling and well-writ, or it is not. Let the public judge, but give us more of what we need: stories about the people who make up the majority of this country. The workers, the dreamers, the fallen who demand their day with the beauty and heartbreak of their tales, despite the cultural hegemony (as in Gramsci, not Lenin). And in terms of memoir being cheap whoring, I don’t know a man who wears his pants down around his ankles as much as Mr. Lish, in his fiction and otherwise. Endearingly so at times (if the thought doesn’t horrify you), but, still.
Memoir is now a genre much maligned because of some very bad apples in the bunch. I wish I could say literary hoax memoirs have no other intent than to spin a spicy misery yarn in a bid for fame, and some of them are just that, fame being the great Mesmer of our age. There are plenty of these fakesters among us right now, and I venture that for some, chronicling a false journey through living hell may have assuaged a sense of guilt (in some cases liberal), or assigned a badge of honor (however counterfeit), or lent meaning to a convoluted pain one could find no other way of coping with. For example, as a child inmate of Buchenwald concentration camp, Herman Rosenblat imagined a young girl from outside the camp would come and throw food to him over the fence. As a man, he wrote a ‘memoir’ called Angel at the Fence, claiming that he serendipitously met the girl much later in life and married her. Even though Rosenblat did in truth survive Buchenwald and Theresienstadt, (although his mother did not; she was killed in the gas chambers of Treblinka) the love story of the girl-at-the-fence-into-wife was a falsification, a great fraud played out on Oprah, just as it similarly was with James Frey. Why couldn’t Rosenblat have written the truth, presenting the chimera of the girl as just that, and how it helped keep him alive? Would the true story of a boy fantasizing love in a concentration camp, surviving, and consequently dreaming his wife into the role of his fantasy really have been that less poignant?
Misha deFonseca (real name, de Wael) wrote a ‘memoir’ of an imagined life as a holocaust survivor hiding from the Nazis across Europe, taking the child thrown to the wolves trope quite literally, claiming she was looked after by friendly wolfpacks. As if this weren’t fantastical enough, de Wael’s parents were Catholic resistance fighters in Belgium during the war, not Jewish as she’d claimed. Her father turned collaborator with the Gestapo after their arrest. Was he tortured into that collaboration? The facts aren’t known. Was de Wael haunted by her familial history, by the idea of her father having been a traitor? You bet. Her book was falsely presented as memoir, yet the truth of it is in the make-believe of a woman coming to terms with questions of hers and her family’s dark past. Every instance is as different as how we personally react to it.
I think of the painter in the documentary Catfish, (spoiler alert) a fakester but ultimately one I had compassion for. You’d have to be made of steel not to feel her pathos during the denouement scene of that film. In the ‘memoir’ Love and Consequences, Margaret Seltzer falsely claimed to be both foster child and Bloods gang member. How aspirational! She grew up in Sherman Oaks, bored to death no doubt. These are women who clearly wrestled with understanding their own pain or were unable to live their dreams, yet both found another route to do just that through forging a life. An audience is always willing to follow when the tale is engaging.
But enough with the sympathy for the fakesters, let’s talk about the working class. Boo ya! We’re desperately out of fashion these days and have been for some time, a voice and texture the literary elite seems to find distasteful. We have wall street and the bankers robbing us blind while the cultural cognescenti turn their noses up at us. Talk about getting shafted. Writers who pierce straight into the heart of class and race are ignored in favor of MFA-fueled obfuscations, both little and large. It’s not the über-educated I take umbrage with; it’s with the elitest gatekeepers of culture who deny the ‘underclass’ a voice. Gosh, how awful is underclass? A new term, certainly not coined by the working class it seeks to further undermine. Isn’t the point of education also a moral one? There hasn’t been such economic blight in America since the great depression, yet where are today’s working class voices? Our Carson McCullers, Faulkner, Steinbeck, O’Connor, Langston Hughes, John Fante? Once in a while a voice will sneak through, but only a few come to mind from the 1980’s on. Sapphire’s Push. Bastard Out of Carolina by Dorothy Allison. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, Nick Flynn. Just Kids, by Patti Smith, which brings me back to memoir. Can it really be true that the stories we desperately need to approach a renewed fraternity with one another and to heal the country, those well-written and brutally honest stories, are being suppressed?
As David Shields ventures, “What if America isn’t really the sort of place where a street urchin can charm his way to the top through diligence and talent? What if instead it’s the sort of place where heartwarming stories about abused children who triumphed through adversity are made up and marketed?” I hear Shields’ book Reality Hunger is abhorred in certain literary circles. No surprise. Naked emperors prefer the chill to the truth.
On the authentic front, Mary Karr wrote one of the most beautiful memoirs I’ve read to date entitled, ironically, The Liars’ Club. Karr is the real thing. When I started her Lit: A Memoir, I was a bit turned off by the self-consciousness of the writing but I stuck with it, because something in her language held me. Tentatively, yes, but I stayed on the journey, and boy was it ever worth it because when I realized what she was doing halfway through the book, it blew me away. She showed me a self-pitying self-obsessed drunk and took me into her initially reluctant sobriety. Then the layers started peeling away as she got it: the what is and the why of her alcoholism, the self-consciousness falling away in her personality and in the writing itself as sobriety took hold with its accompanying humility, bit by bit. It was a pretty dazzling feat. Recently, Karr gave James Frey a well-deserved bash on Facebook in reaction to the NY Magazine article about his new ‘fiction factory’.
Luc Sante – who has always been his own man and a man after my own heart – rocks hard. Playful and beautifully written, his memoir Factory of Facts presents no less than nine different versions of one story (in the first 11 pages!), each commencing with “I was born in 1954, in Vervier, Belgium…”, concerning what happened when shortly after his birth, his father’s employer went bankrupt and the family emigrated (or didn’t) to America. An elegant, funny and evocative work, Luc presents his personal vision of how we are made by where we come from, featuring memory as a glimmering thing. Tumble down the rabbit hole of Luc’s blog: http://ekotodi.blogspot.com
Certain memoirs call to mind one of my favorite Dorothy Allison quotes (and there are so many): “Two or three things I know for sure, and one of them is what it means to have no loved version of your life but the one you make.”
There is no black and white in memoir, but there are corners. And there is the oldest profession in the world.
Eileen Myles is one of the purest art whores I know. The resistance whore of no subterfuge, grenade right there in the palm of her hand for all to see while she blows up assumptions and genres and revels in it. Her book, Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) is NOT a memoir she says, for “…memoir just has a kind of preciousness that I want to avoid.” It reads as real to me because I happen to see her duende dancing all over it. Inferno is a ‘novel’ because she ‘says so’, and refers to it sometimes as a ‘record’, but never as ‘memoir’. And who can blame her, with the way memoir is currently being framed? A German term for an artist’s coming-of-age – Künstlerroman – is more fitting. She likes it, she claims it for her great work about a woman becoming a poet on the streets of New York in the 1970’s. Wayne Koestenbaum says “…literary artists need to be given the liberties that have long been accorded to visual artists (ever since Duchamp).” Eileen isn’t waiting to be given anything. Writers like Luc and Eileen take all the liberties they want, and they’re the realest it ever gets. They understand they owe no one the truth per se, but to honor themselves as poets and artists, they offer up their duende.
When I first read Lorca’s essay on the duende, all of my being stood doe-still, breathless. All I’d felt but could not articulate about the power of certain works of art was here, in Lorca’s own imp of the perverse. The duende is an inspired poetic reasoning of why one person is capable of extraordinary art where another is not. When an artist allows it to enter through their emotional wounds and to dance in their blood, it comes out to play in the work; this is duende, and the artist has to be strong enough, soft enough to both conjure and allow it to have its way. The duende is the heightened state of emotion, the authentic moment, the fairy or goblin-like creature that bestows soul by holding up the merciless mirror. The love affair that every great artist must have is a pas de deux with the duende. Lorca had it, as did Maria Callas. As much as some people may currently despise him, Mel Gibson has it. Madonna does not, although she’s one helluva showgirl. If I’m going to weigh, to judge, duende is my forever measure of art. Classless. Mystical. Ugly beautiful.
I haven’t much compassion for Frey, not that I don’t relate to the journey of addiction and recovery, trust me. The problem is that beneath his ‘memoir’, I see a guy with not much recovery at all, still wanting desperately to be a badass. Did he really compare himself to Rimbaud? I must admit I’m irked that he’s from my hometown (because we Clevelandaise are generally not a fraudulent taste), and by him claiming that all memoirists are liars, paraphrasing David Shields without his wisdom or insights. Lately he’s in the news for exploiting young writers, now jumping on the YA wagon as a pickpocket no less. Very fashionable indeed.
At least JT Leroy (whoever ‘they’ were) had literary talent, pulled off their fraud with panache and then faded away sheepishly, not wishing to cause any further harm. Frey is an ever-ready bunny; he just keeps on hopping across your desktop, annoying the hell out of you with his reprehensible antics until all you can visualize are a million smashed bunny bits.
I do believe memoir should be as real as the events that shape us, not the fantasies, unless they are named as such. But to those who want to hijack us into the idea that memoir must abide by some newly manufactured governance based on recent frauds, don’t dare think you’ll ever confine memory to a dry, academically-scriptured hump, or that working class voices will remain fettered. Life is poetry, and as Dorothy Allison says, “We are made by heartbreak.” The heartbreak of this country will not be ignored forever, unless we are all, over and under-class, determined to destroy ourselves.
I’m moved by ‘misery lit’ with endings that aren’t necessarily happy, as long as they tear a bit of the sky open enough to glimpse the eternity within us all. The most soulful stories are those penned from hard-earned corners, which all the MFA’s in the world can’t buy a piece of. Leave the real working girls (and boys), who know the duende of truth is far sexier than a pack of lies, to do the righteous work. And to the gatekeepers; open the windows so we can be heard. You just might find there’s plenty in it for you, too.
Memoirs I have known and loved (in no particular order):
A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway
Two or Three Things I Know For Sure Dorothy Allison
Speak, Memory Vladimir Nabokov
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings Maya Angelou
The Woman Warrior Maxine Hong Kingston
Black Boy Richard Wright
Slow Motion Dani Shapiro
The Autobiography of Malcolm X
This Boy’s Life Tobias Wolff
Survival in Auschwitz Primo Levi
Brother, I’m Dying Edwige Danticat
Stop-Time Frank Conroy
The Year of Magical Thinking Joan Didion
Factory of Facts Luc Sante
The Diary of a Young Girl Anne Frank
Soul on Ice Eldridge Cleaver
Infidel Ayaan Hirsi Ali
Me Talk Pretty One Day David Sedaris
Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight Alexandra Fuller
The Liar’s Club Mary Karr
Lucky Alice Sebold
Running With Scissors Augusten Burroughs
Memories of a Catholic Girlhood Mary McCarthy
Dispatches Michael Herr
Manchild in the Promised Land Claude Brown
Just Kids Patti Smith
Permanent Midnight Jerry Stahl
Zami, A New Spelling of My Name Audre Lourde
Borstal Boy Brendan Behan
The Fire Next Time James Baldwin
Christ Stopped at Eboli Carlo Levi
Boy Roald Dahl
The Enigma of Arrival V.S. Naipaul
Dry Augusten Burroughs
The Things Between Us Lee Montgomery
Angela’s Ashes Frank McCourt
Devotion Dani Shapiro
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City Nick Flynn
Days of Grace Arthur Ashe
Leni Riefenstahl An Autobiography
Angela Davis An Autobiography
Kaffir Boy Mark Mathabane
Lit Mary Karr