Writing Unremarkable Memoirs

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.

This did not sit well with many people here, here, and here. Most think he was being overly mean.

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.


3 thoughts on “Writing Unremarkable Memoirs

  1. I have contemplated writing a memoir”ish” book, but always in the back of my mind I hear…”Who would care?” So if I do end up writing one, I believe it will just be for me, for the sake of writing.

    • you could ask yourself that same question about anything you write. The fact is, when we write, we’re writing something no one asked us to write. So, I’d say write it. Who knows what you’ll find out as you write it?

  2. I seem to be seeing a trend toward negatively reviewing the reviewers who submit a negative review whether it be a book or a ballet performance. That in itself is unfortunate as is the fact that most book publishers (especially the bigger ones with PR departments) are in it to make money rather than to promote “the best” and so cater to the masses rather than to “the best”.

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