Neil Genzlinger at the New York Times reviewed four memoirs last week. He found only one that was worthwhile. He had the temerity to say that merely because you exist, doesn’t mean your life is interesting, or that you even know how to make your life interesting through writing.
His rule to live by?
If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.
You could use Genzlinger’s yardstick “If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your [sci-fi/romance/etc.] don’t publish it,” to good effect for judging your own writing.
But why single out the memoir?
Probably because in this age of blogging, social networks, talk shows, and “reality” TV shows, talking about yourself is not just encouraged but celebrated. Usually, the more salacious the better. The memoir has grown in popularity along with the growth of a kind of tell-all culture and the decline of privacy.
As much as the curmudgeon in me sympathizes with Genzlinger’s sentiments regarding the memoir, every area of writing suffers from a glut of the unremarkable, from literary fiction to poetry to history. But that has always been the case. Creating something truly remarkable in any artistic field is a monumental challenge. That people fail at it is not remarkable. That a handful of people succeed with every generation to give us something that illuminates our human existence in a way we had not ever before considered is something remarkable. One that should never be taken for granted.