Telling Stories about Myself: There's a Reason Memoirs Are So Popular. They Satisfy a Primitive Human Instinct-Curiosity

By Shilling, Jane | New Statesman (1996), March 7, 2011 | Go to article overview
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Telling Stories about Myself: There's a Reason Memoirs Are So Popular. They Satisfy a Primitive Human Instinct-Curiosity


Shilling, Jane, New Statesman (1996)


The alchemy that drives literary fashion is as mysterious and inexplicable as that of haute couture. More so, indeed, for you can predict with fair accuracy that if last season's summer collections had a nautical theme, this season will be all about ruffled florals.

Yet who could predict or explain the tectonic shifts of literature that produced the vast, multi-volume biographies of the late 1960s and 1970s (such as Michael Holroyd's works on Augustus John and George Bernard Shaw); the nest of fictional singing birds that contained Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Martin Amis and Julian Barnes; or the Bridget Jones tsunami that continues to flood bookshops with chirpily introspective women's fiction? Only a few years ago, if you'd been asked to name a truly unfashionable genre, your answer might have been memoir. (Next to epic poetry--and hang on, wasn't Clive James writing some of that? Which presumably made it, in some way, quite modish?)

In 1825, when the courtesan Harriette Wilson published her pioneering kiss-and-tell memoirs with their explosive first line (still one of the great literary come-ons of all time)--"I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of 15, the mistress of the Earl of Craven"--memoir may have been a genre with the power to intrigue.

But over the next 150 years, the dead hand of pointless reminiscence squeezed much of the spirit out of the genre. With a few remarkable exceptions (such as J R Ackerley's fiercely truthful writing about his life), candour and revelation fled. Memoir was annexed by rambling military men and anecdotal aristocratic ladies, to the point where the author Mary Dunn had a riotous success in Punch magazine in the 1930s with her parody Lady Addle Remembers:

  I remember once seeing Mipsie lying in a dahabeeyah in broad
  daylight, dressed only in purple sequins, with a goat bending
  over her. I've no idea what she was doing ...

Half a century later, when Tobias Wolff began writing This Boy's Life (1989), little had changed. "The memoir field was pretty much commanded by eminent actors and military men," Wolff said in a recent interview. "There was no reason for anyone to be interested in me because of who I was. I had a respectable readership as a short-story writer. I was doing quite well. But I had no idea this book would take off the way it did."

Wolff's breakthrough was to find a way of writing about himself that combined the authentic voice of truth with the artistic rigour of fiction. Or not find, so much as rediscover the impulse for a writer to explore large truths about humanity through the close study of the minutiae of his own life, of which Montaigne's Essays (1580) are still the most brilliant example. "My concern," Montaigne wrote, "is not to depict the individual as he exists, but to show him in the act of becoming. I paint the passing of time--not from one age to another, in seven-year stages, as people say--but from day to day and minute to minute. My story changes with the passing hour."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

That bold candour was, for a very long time, the preserve of fiction. The novel evolved as a way of exploring obliquely truths about society and individual sensibility too dangerous and unpalatable to confront directly.

A favourite device of novelists, from Swift and Defoe to those of our own day, has been to frame their fiction in the guise of memoir. But it doesn't necessarily work the other way round, as James Frey discovered on the publication of A Million Little Pieces, his purported memoir of addiction, which turned out to contain what his erstwhile champion Oprah Winfrey considered to be more than the permitted amount of fictional additives. Not that it did him much harm in the end. Fewer than a couple of thousand readers took up his publisher's offer to return their money, on receipt of an affidavit stating that they had bought his book under the impression that it was true.

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