The Book Club

Kling and Kerr

Dear Sarah,

Before we start, I have to ask you something: How old are you? I’m asking because I think that you have to be a certain age (boomer) to understand what’s going on with Joyce Maynard, and why her book is getting the most viciously unfair treatment that I’ve ever seen in my whole life.

Maynard was the first in my age group to get a cover assignment–when every other would-be Pulitzer-Prize winner was still out buying Clearasil–and then she moved in with God (or my generation’s equivalent). Daphne Merkin begins her review, in the New Yorker, by telling us exactly where she was the day the New York Times magazine piece came out. The Kennedy joke wasn’t lost on me. This minor event did create strong feelings, of pure envy.

Merkin goes on to dismiss the book at just another example of our culture’s addiction to “exposure.” She seems disgusted to actually have to read all that embarrassing “autobiographical minutiae.” Excuse me? Is this Gertrude Himmelfarb or even Emily Post talking? No, Merkin made her literary reputation with an article about how she loved to be spanked. She’s also written about getting her tits reduced, her shoplifting problems and why she isn’t going to become a lesbian. It makes me wonder if this is a review or a get-off-my-spot attack.

Merkin and everyone else has deplored the fact that Maynard violated Salinger’s privacy because it is the one thing that this great reclusive author requested. Friends of mine, even august Slate writers, have echoed these sentiments. I remind them, this is Maynard’s memoir. It is the story of what happened to her. Well, she could have gotten around talking about Salinger, they suggest. How? By disguising him–“famous writer (not Pynchon) who will go unnamed?”

Maynard has taken a lot of heat for being a self-promoter. But that’s imprecise sneery, jeery Schadenfreude. She doesn’t have a banquette at 44, or play in the artists and writers’ softball game. She is guilty, but of something else. Whether she was writing as “the voice of our generation” or the echt pie-making mom–in the past her writing has always felt inaccurate, treacly. The work was maddeningly dishonest–and this from the woman who purported to represent us.

How did she get to that point? Why were her accounts “a vision of my life on paper that has less to do with the way things really are than with how I wish them to be”? How did being chosen as mommy’s special girl and then Salinger’s Lolita pull her so far away from her own integrity, her honesty? And then there is the inevitable question, what is honesty in a memoir?

These are the ideas of this book, but you don’t get any sense of them from the early catcalls, I mean reviews. Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post and Laura Shapiro in Newsweek based their pieces on the Vanity Fair snippet (and Yardley said that “if the book is 15% as bad as the excerpt it will be the worst book ever written: smarmy, whiny, smirky and, above all, almost indescribably stupid”). Has that jerk ever been to Barnes & Noble? Everyone just wanted to read the dirty parts–and then sneer and jeer. But it’s about as fair as parachuting in on Princess Diana’s life the night she was killed and saying, why wasn’t she with Prince Charles? What was she doing with that drunk Arab, anyway?

There is always the back story, how she got from there to here, and that is what Maynard writes about–trying to figure out how to write the truth, trying to accept the truth, even. Do you think she succeeded?