The Mask

Mary Karr, master of memoir.

Mary Karr
Mary Karr

Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Deborah Feingold.

“Memoir as a genre has entered its heyday,” Mary Karr states in the preface to her new book, The Art of Memoir. While—like just about everyone who’s ever read her—I tend to believe every single thing Karr says, that line brought me up short. Are these really still the glory days of the form? The Art of Memoir certainly cites many books by Karr’s gifted contemporaries: Tobias and Geoffrey Wolff, Frank McCourt, Lucy Grealy, David Carr, Dave Eggers, and Jon Krakauer (for Into Thin Air). But there’s a distinctly ’90s flavor to this pantheon, one that reminds me not of current bookstore shelves but of James Atlas’ much-discussed 1996 essay for the New York Times Magazine, announcing, not without some anxiety, that “The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now.”

If we define the literary memoir as a book whose chief appeal is its execution—rather than the pre-existing fame of its author or the extraordinary experiences she endured—would anyone argue, as Atlas once did, that it is poised to supplant the novel? Of course, wonderful literary memoirs continue to be published: Two recent standouts include Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk and Wild by Cheryl Strayed, a former student of Karr’s. But the memoir no longer seems the juggernaut that once impelled nervous literati like William Gass to denounce it in the pages of Harper’s. I emailed the young literary agent Alia Hanna Habib to ask what the market is thinking these days. “I think publishers would be much quicker to consider a fantastic novel by an unknown than a fantastic memoir by someone unknown,” she wrote back.

The Art of Memoir is part instruction for the would-be memoirist, part tribute to and defense of the form that Karr has adored since childhood and has mastered as an adult. Karr loves the memoir because it is (or at least can be) beautifully, achingly evocative, like Nabokov’s Speak, Memory. She also appreciates its democratic “anyone-who’s-lived-can-write-one aspect.” Memoirs by writers who faced daunting challenges, like Maya Angelou, offered Karr hope as a child “that I could someday grow up and get out of the mess I was in.” And finally, for Karr, a good memoir is the closest thing you can get in book form to the unvarnished presence of an actual human being, unencumbered by the artifice of fiction. “Pretty much all the great memoirists I’ve met,” she writes, “sound on the page like they do in person. If the page is a mask, you rip it off only to find that the writer’s features exactly mold to the mask’s form, with nary a gap between public and private self.”

Despite Karr’s assertion, it seems to me that the literary memoir is in decline—or, rather, that it’s being digested: broken down into parts and appropriated by a culture ravenous for first-person testimony. On the highbrow end of the spectrum, there is the episodic fiction of writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Sheila Heti, whose mazy narratives are treated as nearly indistinguishable from autobiography. Habib reminded me that popular collections by essayists like Leslie Jamison and Eula Biss, which blend first-person confidences with reportage and cultural history, are in many respects memoir by another name. Meanwhile, as Laura Bennett has observed, the Internet has commandeered the confessional role of the book-length memoir, particularly for women.

Despite the memoir’s perfectly respectable history, going all the way back to St. Augustine, its boom in the ’90s and 2000s led to much establishment hand-wringing. Memoirs were dismissed as unseemly, sensationalistic, and subliterary. Even Atlas, who professed some respect for the form, linked its vogue to an unsavory social trend he described as “confessing in public to an audience of voyeurs”; Gass, in his own cane-shaking tirade, condemned memoirists as exhibitionistic narcissists eager to embrace “the ultimate plurality of our selfishness” in which we each “perform our person to an empty house.”

Gass and fellow memoir-denouncer Jonathan Yardley, book critic for the Washington Post, had already lost the battle before they began to fight. Karr argues that Richard Wright’s Black Boy spearheaded the late-20th-century memoir boom all the way back in 1945 by offering vital testimony to the lived experiences of people previously deemed insignificant by literary poobahs. Meanwhile, by the 1970s, highbrow novelists apparently felt their form required a major overhaul. A whole school of experimental fiction, mostly written by white men ensconced in universities (John Barth, Robert Coover, Stanley Elkin), stepped forth to offer American readers their wares. “New forms!” these novelists proclaimed, unveiling, to scattered applause, books that interrogated the artificiality of fiction itself.

“New subject matter!” was the rival street call of the memoirists. If the unreality of fiction troubles you, the antidote is not more fiction calling attention to its own unreality, but authenticity, the life stories of people who haven’t had much chance to publish their life stories before. Karr credits Harry Crews’ A Childhood, about his “cracker past,” with flushing her out of one of her “biggest psychological hidey-holes” when she was an “academically uncredentialed former redneck Texan trying to pass myself off as a poet in hyperliterary Cambridge.”

But if the memoir’s critics might grudgingly admit the merits of examining important issues like race or class from a different perspective, what really seemed to disgust the naysayers of the ’90s were memoirs by white women. Karr’s case in point is Kathryn Harrison, who in 1997 published The Kiss, a memoir of being seduced by her long-lost father at the age of 20. The book is an unsparing attempt to come to terms with a relationship that had haunted Harrison’s fiction, and for writing it she was, in Karr’s words, “blistered in the press.”

It’s almost impossible to imagine such a response now, when equally or even more shocking revelations appear on the Internet on a weekly basis. As Bennett pointed out, a very similar story, recently published on Jezebel, went viral, but still garnered nothing in comparison to the uproar that greeted The Kiss. Harrison’s was a book people talked about for months and about which every person in the book business felt obliged to take a position. Yardley deplored The Kiss (in one of three pieces pummeling it) as a “slimy, repellent, meretricious, cynical” offering to the “gods of publicity.” Harrison was dunned for not making her memoir sexy enough in Vanity Fair, while the New Republic scolded her for transmitting her father’s abuse to her own children by daring to write about it. Notably, her most contemptuous reviewers were men, who were seemingly oblivious to the misogynistic element to their insistence that some life experiences ought to remain unspoken—especially the painful sexual experiences of women.

The idea of confession, provided the tale finishes up with a triumph over adversity and one’s own weaknesses, has always been a rich vein in American culture. We’re riveted by the drama of a lone individual seeking redemption by standing up in front of a crowd and bearing witness to his or her own troubles. Such testimonials are central to both revivalist Christianity and 12-step programs. First-person narratives of addiction and recovery, like Sarah Hepola’s recent best-seller, Blackout, remain one of the literary memoir’s most reliable manifestations, perhaps because the saga of getting high; hitting bottom; and trekking the long, grueling, switchbacked trail to sobriety can’t really be covered in a 2,000-word piece for XoJane.

Karr (who wrote her own recovery memoir, Lit) seems to take it for granted that the aspiring memoirists reading her book want to wrestle with some trauma, though she tries not to encourage self-pity. “Let’s say something pseudo-awful has befallen you—a safe bet for any human unit thinking about a memoir,” she writes. (Can this be true? I’m having a hard time thinking of any that are mainly fond and sunny: Perhaps Cider With Rosie or Growing Up.) It’s clear, at the very least, that the students Karr teaches at Syracuse University have tales of suffering and transcendence they want to tell. (One of the many, many small pleasures of The Art of Memoir is tracking the gentle but firmly dissuading instruction Karr directs at students who come to the task seeking to settle scores with those who have wronged them.) That’s one reason memoir has a complicated relationship to the bastard genre of self-help, another factor contributing to its lowly rep. Some readers understandably doubt the intentions of a trauma memoir. Is it too eager to please its readers, swimming in vapid bromides designed to give sad sacks the delusional comfort they need to carry on with their crappy lives? Or is it literally self-help, written primarily for the author’s sake, to come to terms with some old trouble? Well, what makes you think anyone’s interested in your one-woman therapy sessions?

The memoir and the self-help tract merge fuzzily in an inspirational travelogue like Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. (Gilbert’s forthcoming book, Big Magic, throws off all pretense and embraces its pop-psych destiny.) Yet even a more ambitious work, like Wild, is obliged by the taste of its audience to finish with some life lesson. People don’t want to read your account of unmitigated suffering unless you’re going to hand out a little hope as they file through the exit. Part of the rare, shocking power of Sonali Deraniyagala’s memoir, Wave, is its refusal of this comfy formula. Even in a memoir by someone who lost her husband, two sons, and both parents in the 2004 tsunami, we’re trained to expect uplift—so when we don’t get that, it’s particularly shattering.

Readers come to memoirs seeking hope: You survived, so maybe I can too. Karr herself names this as a wellspring of their appeal. But the pressure to provide more reassurance, more excitement, as well as more facts than the truth warrants can lead to falsification. Of course there’s a chapter in The Art of Memoir about lying autobiographers like James Frey, bad actors who have tainted the form’s public image. And yes, of course, memories of events that transpired decades before the memoirist sets pen to paper may be wrong, disputed, or simply missing. Karr vows that neither she nor any of the top-notch memoirists she knows has had to make major revisions in response to complaints from family and friends. “Interviewers and audience members are gobsmacked when I mention this,” she reports. “No one believes memoirists aren’t constantly assaulted by detractors and naysayers and lawsuits.”

Sending out a complete draft of the work to the people described in it fends off most such troubles. But a more important preventative step is simply not to deliberately make stuff up. Families expect that memories will differ a bit, but “publishing lies requires a whole different level of sociopathy.” As a reader, Karr insists that a memoirist make her best effort at describing the truth as she experienced it and admit when she’s not sure what really happened or when someone else remembers it differently. David Carr’s memoir, The Night of the Gun, an attempt to report out what he did during the worst years of his substance abuse, foregrounds just how challenging squaring that circle can be. Karr has no patience for memoirists like Vivian Gornick, who argue it’s standard procedure to manipulate or invent facts to improve a story without acknowledging they’re doing so upfront. She compares them with a deli guy who announces, “I put just a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.” To Karr’s mind, “A small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”

That quote should give you a pretty good sense of Karr’s voice, if you haven’t gotten around to her memoirs. (And why on earth haven’t you?) The girl got out of southeast Texas, but there’s still plenty of southeast Texas left in the girl. She can also do a Homeric metaphor with the best of ’em: “A single image can split open the hard seed of the past, and soon memory pours forth from every direction, sprouting its vines and flowers up around you till the old garden’s taken shape in all its fragrant glory.” Voice, the quality that floods a great memoirist’s most mundane material with radiant charm, is Karr’s superpower. Read her for five pages and suddenly you want to know what she thinks about everything. You want to be her best friend, if she’ll have you.

Even this rare quality, however, perhaps the greatest advantage of the best memoirists, has been co-opted by other media. We live in an age where it’s possible to be likable for a living. (YouTube stars offer their fans glimpses of their lives, admit adorably to their own foibles, weep out their rough patches, and just generally serve as virtual best friends to millions of lonely viewers.) Except that Karr really is an artist. The Art of Memoir attests to how hard she works at getting her words just right and how deeply she understands the way great writing works. Her close readings of authors ranging from Michael Herr and Hilary Mantel to Crews and Frank Conroy make the book well worth its cover price to aspiring writers and careful readers of all genres. Art is the hardest thing of all to steal, it turns out, because it’s the hardest thing of all to do. Fad followers and lesser lights make up the bulk of any literary trend. The genuine comets are simply too rare, as is (to quote Karr one more time), “the sheer convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.”

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr. Harper.

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