The Book Club

In Praise of Bad Memoirs

Dear Cynthia,

Believe you me–the last thing I want us to do is smudge. And I feel tons of sympathy for women trying to strike out on their own. If anything, I’m in danger of becoming a women-striking-out-on-their-own correspondent for Slate: the theme has shown up in pieces I’ve written on everything from Virginia Woolf to the upcoming TV show Felicity. What I meant by “the rough contours of the divide” was the whole generation-gap issue, which I think has moved way beyond overkill. Yes, you guys needed to rebel, while we were latchkey children, etc. But please, people, can’t we all just get along?

As for which writers I love and why, I’m afraid we’re wandering off the topic. But since you’re not going to let me off the hook, here goes. My father was an English professor. His books were scattered around the house. I picked them up at random. The first book I remember really loving was Tobias Smollet’s The Expedition of Humphrey Clinker. God knows whether I would get through it today.

My favorite writers in high school were Mark Twain and, especially, Jane Austen. Neither one made me weep, but then I often prefer laughter to tears in a book. I believe that there’s a moral value to irony; an awareness, a modesty. I like writers who criticize what needs to be criticized but who hold themselves in check. I like writers who move inside and outside their characters’ heads–who feel sympathy but are still able to see.

On to memoirs. The genre has never fascinated me per se, but there are many that I like. Virginia Woolf’s diaries, M.F.K Fisher, a Joan Didion essay here and there. Luis Bunuel wrote one that I adore for its funny descriptions of Louis Aragon, Charlie Chaplin, and junky Mexican soap opera actors from the 1950s. Primo Levi is beautiful, and sad. I love Thurber, even though (or maybe because) he reveals next to nothing about himself. One of my favorites, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh, is a memoir masquerading as a novel. It’s actually relevant to Maynard, since it’s about a kid who wants to please his parents. He gets so stressed out that he suffers a nervous breakdown and ends up in jail.

I don’t have many rules. I would even argue that a deeply compromised memoir can still pack a punch. A couple of years ago I bought an old used book, purely out of pity. The poor author had named his life story Remembrance of Things Past, unaware that in a few years Proust would be translated under the same title. I was curious to learn about this sad, lost man. It turned out he was kind of a 19th century Zelig. He helped explore California, knew Harriet Beecher Stowe, and edited some famous sermons. Boy, was he square! He was writing in the 1920s, but his sensibility was stuck in 1858. I remember a long Victorian death scene in which a tubercular girl expired, then took on the aspect of an angel.

That, my friend, was a bad memoir. But it was riveting and poignant, in an extremely minor sort of way. Maybe I feel sort of the same way about Maynard. She’s absurd, but she moves me; she moves me, but I won’t deny that she’s absurd. It helps of course that I don’t care too much about Salinger. Yesterday I told you that I think he is overrated. I think some of the ugliness Maynard witnessed in real life is there in the books, too. I think that if he’d died instead of retreating into his famous hibernation he’d be fondly recalled, but not necessarily considered a giant.

Which brings me to some questions I feel you haven’t answered. How do you, Cynthia Kling, really feel about Salinger? For the last two days I’ve implied (but maybe not stated clearly enough) that your “oh-how we-worshipped-him-back-then” answer isn’t enough. What do you think of him now, looking back, as an adult? I know that if I really thought Salinger was a great writer, I couldn’t bring myself to defend Maynard. Or, at least, I couldn’t defend her without losing just a little respect for him.

Cynthia, you say you “care too deeply” about this topic to let our differences go. But I don’t know what our differences are, because I’m really not sure what it is that you care about. We’ve got one day left. Let’s give it a final go….