Tuesday, October 7, 2008


The popularity of Memoir seems to be increasing exponentially over the past few years, with both readers and writers. At any writing conference, every third person will tell you they're working on a memoir. When agents hear this, their eyes glaze over slightly and they say things like, "Memoirs can be a really hard sell."

And yet, they are selling--the New York Times Bestseller list is full of memoirs--so I think what they mean is, "Memoir can be hard to write well." Most people's lives aren't that different from anybody else's--so why would somebody that's not related to you want to read a book about you? What's the hook? "I was abused," isn't a good enough answer. "I was abused by my delusional mother who gave me away to her psychiatrist where I fell in love with a pedophile at 13," apparently is.

Some of my favorite books have been memoirs, from the Little House books, to James Herriot's All Creatures Great and Small series, to Frank McCourt's 'Tis to Nic Sheff's Tweak and David Sheff's Beautiful Boy. But too often, a memoir is merely a chronicle of events. Celebrity memoirs, in particular, tend to combine this chronicling with name dropping for a nauseating exercise in egotism (and yet when I picked up Christopher Reeves' Still Me off the shelves of a beach house one weekend, it drew me in completely--a book I'll never forget).

So, what makes a memoir a good read?

The two main elements of memoir, like fiction, are plot and character. A combination of the two is necessary, of course, otherwise fascinating stuff would happen to nobody, or amazing characters would watch other characters sleep. Ask someone to describe their favorite book and you can tell immediately if they like their books more plot-driven or character-driven. Generally, mystery-lovers won't tell you that Dick Francis's Whip Hand is about a guy who used to be a jockey until he lost his hand in an accident and became a private investigator; they'll tell you it's a racehorse mystery in which a guy is hired to find out why certain horses have been performing poorly.

Ask me about Whip Hand (which I read when I was 14) and I'll tell you all about Sid Halley, the self-sufficient detective who struggles to come to terms with the injury that changed his life. But I had to look up a synopsis of the book in order to tell you what the mystery was. I knew it was something about horses. All Dick Francis' plots are about horses, and they tend to run together in my mind; as the years go by they begin to feel formulaic. But I read every single book he writes because the characters are worth getting to know.

Which brings me to memoirs. Because even the most interesting events in a life won't capture my attention unless the people do, and making characters come alive on a page is hard.

One year I found myself compelled to read every memoir of the holocaust I could lay my hands on. I don't know why. But what happened over those few months was that the victims and survivors came alive for me. By the time I'd moved on to lighter fare, those memoirs had changed me.

Which is why I thought Resistance would appeal to me. It begins as the diary of French resistance member Agnes Humbert, as she goes from being an art historian at the onset of World War Two, to prisoner, to factory slave laborer. Plotwise, there's a lot going on.

In terms of character, though? The dryest book I've read in a long time. Agnes writes of missing her mother and her grown sons terribly, and of her affection for the people she encounters both inside and outside the prison. She may have missed her family very much, but I didn't miss them because I'd only met them in passing. There was little distinction between most of Agnes's comrades. When it got to the point where they were all on trial for treason and I realized I was bored at the height of a major turning point (I knew from the dedication, after all, which of them would be executed), I stopped reading.

John Grogan's The Longest Trip Home is the prequel to his very popular Marley and Me, which I've never read but had heard good things about. Many readers find Grogan charming and easy to relate to. For me, the first section of the book was as familiar as if I'd read it before: Baby Boomer from nice Catholic family fails as altar boy, commits pranks with friends, gets girlfriend, smokes pot. I'm guessing he goes to college, smokes more pot, gets another girlfriend, gets married, raises a family and eventually (because it says so in the prologue) his parents die. It's Every Baby Boomer's story, I've been hearing it for all of my 41 years, and I'm bored with it.

All character, no plot to speak of. I stopped reading.

Blue Genes is another Baby Boomer's story, but Kit and Tony Lukas's family was far from typical and his early childhood was tinged with tragedy. Kit (aka Christopher) has written the book to try to make sense of his brother's death by suicide and how it relates to their family history. For me, the set-up, starting with the scene where Kit learns of Tony's death before skipping backwards, was kind of like someone telling you how the movie ends--I hate that! Lukas also tells the reader right off the bat that he never thought of himself and Tony as being friends . . . then goes on to show himself and Tony relying on each other to get through a difficult childhood. Puzzling. But this is one I'll keep reading. It's got the combination of character and plot that, in my opinion, makes memoir work.


  1. You make some great points here. Best memoir I've read in a while was Cupcake Brown's Piece of Cake.

    I thought I would like Running With Scissors more than I did.

    Oh and I read a lot of travel/foreign country memoirs:
    Under the Tuscan Sun, Reading Lolita in Tehran, Stories I Stole (Republic of Georgia), Twillight over Burma, When A Crocodile Eats the Sun (Zimbabwe) - mostly about places I've been.

  2. Well, good luck with Blue Genes! Can't say that I could connect with the people, even the author, and the story, the plot as it were, I found got less interesting as it went on. I finished it...rather dissatisfied.

    I can't say that I am a fan of memoirs. I guess that I think in some ways, very often, fiction can be more true than non-fiction.

  3. I recently read Resistance. I also found the beginning of the book a bit difficult and slow-going, but since I'd heard such great praise for the book, I kept going. I was rewarded, I think, during the middle and end sections of the book. I found Humbert so feisty! Just my two cents! =)

  4. Lenore, I expected to like Running With Scissors more than I did, too. And I, too, like travel memoirs, especially Bill Bryson, and I was one of those who enjoyed Eat, Pray, Love. (As for A Piece of Cake...I'm not sure I should read a book with a title that makes me hungry for cake every time I see it...)

    Caite, Oh dear. Exactly what I did NOT want to hear about Blue Genes as I head past the halfway point! Well, I'll hold out hope that we'll disagree on this one.

    Tara, I'm so glad you were able to get more out of Resistance than I was, because I was planning to pass it on to a friend and something about, "Here, I couldn't finish this but you might like it" was holding me back. Now I can pass it forward with your recommendation, at least!

  5. ali - re: piece of cake - with what goes on in the story, you WILL NOT have the slightest desire for cake!

  6. For heaven's sake, Resistance ia Agnes Humbert's diary, not a novel. She didn't set out to create characters for her readers' entertainment but to put on record what she and others endured under the German occupation of France. This is a very fine book of war memoirs, and should not be judged by the criteria of a novel!

  7. Thanks for your comment, Anonymous, I appreciate having another viewpoint, and I'm especially glad that others enjoyed Resistance more than I did, because the story it tells is such an important one.

    Resistance does begin as Humbert's diary, as I mentioned. However, on page 46 she writes, "On 13 April my diary ends; yet my memories are so clear that I am able to commit them to paper as they happened and in strict sequence." The diary format was a stylistic choice made by Humbert; she wrote the final 224 pages after the fact and could have chosen to write it another way, or to add more detail afterwards.

    As to the question, should a memoir be judged by the criteria of a novel? That was the point of my post, actually. My answer is, yes. The author's charge to make people come alive on the page is no less important (in fact I'd go so far as to say it's more important) when they represent real life.

  8. Some of my most favorite books this year have all been memoirs. I hadn't realized just how many I read until I had started blogging. I do enjoy them more when they read like a novel because everything comes more alive.

  9. I love memoirs. Thanks for posting an awesome piece on them. I'd never considered them much, memoirs in general I mean.