Memoir: A Troubled Genre

by J. Daniel Hess

Comments for Memoir: A Troubled Genre

  • Ryan Ahlgrim

    On January 17, 2012 Ryan Ahlgrim wrote:

    This is a wonderful summary of the problems inherent in memoir writing. Since almost all of our life stories are shared stories involving friends and family (and enemies), and since it would be a herculean task (if not impossible) to get permission from every person named in a story, is it even possible to write an ethical memoir? And yet, memoir is important for the sake of understanding real people and real life. For myself, I have not yet figured a way out of this dilemma. But thanks for giving us some direction.

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  • Dan Hess

    On January 17, 2012 Dan Hess wrote:

    Thanks for the note, Ryan. I wonder whether Rudy Wiebe continues to belief what he once said. "You don't write about them until they're dead." I understand the sentiment but find it less than satisfactory as "a way out of this dilemma." Perhaps other respondents will give suggestions for a way out.

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  • Heather Munn

    On January 19, 2012 Heather Munn wrote:

    This is very interesting. I've always felt memoir to be kind of problematic, as well as a little too trendy, which is part of why I've always resisted the notion of writing in the genre.

    I'd expand on your point number 1, about the first-person point of view, and add this: it's terribly easy for a gifted writer writing in first-person to make the reader like him/her. We are instinctively sympathetic listeners to an "I", especially if there are reasons for sympathy, and these are easy to provide; everyone suffers. (It's a technique I've used in fiction; my protagonist was in some ways unlikable at the beginning, but I showed what genuinely made him suffer early on to catch the reader's sympathy.) It's also fairly easy for the writer to go further, and pull us into being the enemy of her enemies.

    I've had the experience of reading a memoir and absolutely loving it, sympathizing with the author one hundred percent, and years later finding out that her husband claimed certain things in it (directed against others) were untrue or twisted to the point of caricature. Only then did I look at the memoir again and realize how the author had portrayed herself as a victim bravely soldiering on, how she never spoke of any wrong she herself had done, and I realized her husband was probably telling the truth. You've said the writer can become her own worst enemy, involuntarily accusing herself; I think that's a comment from the point of view of a mature reader, fairly aware of human nature. An immature reader, on the other hand, is at risk of buying the story hook, line and sinker.

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  • Shirley

    On March 8, 2012 Shirley wrote:

    I really enjoyed this essay, Dan, and the comments are excellent also. I consider Mary Karr to be a shining light on this subject. "Make yourself the goat" is one piece of her advice. And "if you aren't your own antagonist, you haven't gone far enough." Heroes and victims are not as interesting, or ultimately believable, as a complex character full of mixed motives, trying to understand herself or himself.

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