Review

Memoir: A History

by Ben Yagoda

In this age of “boo-hoo” journalism, it seems anyone
who has ever been the subject of abuse, illness, or loss --- or who
knows someone in such conditions --- has or soon will come
out with a memoir. A quick look at the new book section in my local
library shows MY JOURNEY WITH FARRAH: A Story of Life, Love, and
Friendship, written by Alana Stewart and published less than two
months after the pop culture icon died in June 2009, and Patrick
Swayze’s posthumous THE TIME OF MY LIFE, released just 15
days after he passed away. Can it be long before we see something
from one of Tigers Woods’s consorts?

You might think that such gut-spilling is a relatively new
phenomenon, but according to Ben Yagoda’s MEMOIR: A History
--- a fascinating, well, biography of the genre --- that’s
not the case by a long shot. From the days of the classic
philosophers through medieval times, men (mostly) have been telling
their stories of conquest, failure, redemption, doubt and/or belief
with the notion that the world (much smaller in those days) was
anxiously waiting to know their thoughts.

There are many subgenres that have enjoyed their
“fad-dom” over the years, such as the founding fathers,
war heroes and former slaves. In contemporary times, we have the
“extreme misery memoir,” which chronicles
“dysfunction, abuse, poverty, addiction, mental illness,
and/or bodily ruin.”

How much detail should be told and how much should be kept
between the writer and his maker? And how will that decision color
the reader’s perception? According to Jean-Jacques Rousseau
in his own CONFESSIONS, he “presents himself as he wants to
be seen, not at all as he is. The sincerest of people are at best
truthful in what they say, but they lie by their reticence, and
what they suppress changes so much what they pretend to reveal that
in telling only part of the truth, they tell none of it.”

Next, we must define what “truth” is exactly. And
since much of that truth is based on memory, what role does
that play? Two people who shared the same situation might
have vastly different recollections of the same affair (as
represented by the “I Remember it Well” duet from the
film Gigi).

Then there’s the infuriating issue of false memoirs,
perhaps best illustrated by James Frey’s A MILLION LITTLE
PIECES, in which he totally misrepresented himself. The manuscript
was originally intended as a novel, but when it garnered scant
interest, he thought it would be more successful if he
“personalized” it. He duped thousands of readers,
thanks in part to his endorsement by Oprah Winfrey before the facts
came to the surface.

Perhaps worse are those who prey on the public’s sympathy
by publishing ersatz Holocaust memoirs, such as FRAGMENTS: Memories
of a Wartime Childhood, 1939-1948 and MISHA, both of which, it
turned out, were totally fraudulent and a disservice to all those
who were subjected to Nazi degradations.

While Yagoda --- a journalism professor at the University of
Delaware --- chastises those who would simply lie about their
circumstances, he takes a laissez-faire approach when it comes to
more innocent misstatements and questions the importance of
absolute accuracy: “Get a life, people. Human memory is
flawed and everybody knows it. And memoir, as a genre, is
universally understood to offer subjective, impressionistic
testimony. It doesn’t pretend to offer the truth,
just the author’s truth….The people who spend
their time scouring these works for mistakes, and then proudly
trumpet their findings, are hypocritical scandalmongers.”
It’s a fine line between exaggerating for emphasis and being
purposely disingenuous.

There are several passages trying to connect perceived memory
and actual fact, all of which make for fascinating pondering. And
whether Yagoda meant it or not, MEMOIR might have the ancillary
effect of making readers question every such book they come across
in the future.

Reviewed by Ron Kaplan on January 6, 2011

Memoir: A History
by Ben Yagoda

  • Publication Date: October 5, 2010
  • Genres: Literary Criticism, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Riverhead Trade
  • ISBN-10: 1594484821
  • ISBN-13: 9781594484827