Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Getting a Life: Recent American Memoirs

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Getting a Life: Recent American Memoirs

Article excerpt

A curious mind probing for truth may well set your scribbling ass free.

-Mary Karr, The Art of Memoir

Almost a decade ago, James Frey admitted that his best-selling memoir about drug addiction, prison, and rehab, A Million Little Pieces, was really a work of fiction. The Smoking Gun website outed him and then Oprah Winfrey, who had helped make the book a best seller, grilled him on live television. "Frey" rhymes with "lie," and the author's first response was to say he'd changed little things, as all memoirists do to enhance their narratives. The evidence against him mounted, and he finally confessed to writing a work of fiction. "Frey," which also rhymes with "try," had done his best to sell the manuscript as a novel, but no one wanted to publish it. The same manuscript, offered as a memoir? Contract, advance, bestsellerdom!

Weirdly, Frey's humiliating experience should have been a cautionary tale for memoirists, but instead it became a template, and notjust because he pretended lies were truth, but because he longed for "street cred" as a drug addict and ex-con. Somewhere in the new millennium, fame and shame got married. Their parents were 1980s talk shows, which evolved into shock shows (Jerry Springer, et al.) where people confessed their sins before studio audiences and hoped for absolution. Lament, repent, let us all rise and . . . clap? Clergy in general and Catholic priests in particular had other things to think about as the '90s unfolded, and while sex scandals and diminishing flocks preoccupied them, the confessional place shifted from the church to the television studio. This move, from sacred and secret to profane and public, increased the audience a million-fold. A few years and better hand-held video cameras later and the confessor didn't even have to visit a television studio-anywhere could be the scene of a revelation on reality TV. Scripted interactions1 and shameful public confessions became a virtual and popular art form.

In the same era more Americans attended college, and MFA programs thrived. Blogs burst into being on the internet alongside all kinds of personal writing, some good, most not. At last, Marxist literary theorists had the chance to witness a moment in which all texts seemed equal, where a survivalist's anti-government rant shared the same webby space with a Moroccan-American writer's literary reflections. Of course it didn't last long; the internet developed its own caste system, and the best writers quickly figured out which venues paid the best or had the most prestige, or both. Despite the cries for diversity that have dominated American campuses since the 1980s, the genre of creative nonfiction, specifically memoir, remains one dominated by upper-middle-class white people whose main life experience seems to be fifteen or more years as students.

In 2014, the two memoirs (both collections of personal essays) that topped the best-seller lists were written by white women born in the 1980s to culturally elite families. Lena Dunham's parents are successful visual artists; Leslie Jamison's father is a well-known economist and her aunt is the acclaimed psychiatrist and memoirist Kay Redfield Jamison. Lena Dunham composed her memoir2 after achieving fame with a hit TV show, Girls, whose plot follows the lives of four highly-educated white girls, friends from college who have reconnected in New York City. Still supported by their parents, they work as unpaid interns, or in menial low-paying jobs. Relationships matter more to them than any kind of work, and Hannah, the main protagonist, seems both to endure and invite degrading relationships with men.

I'm old enough to be Lena Dunham's mother, and sure enough my daughter Alix (a few years younger than Dunham) introduced me to the show. At the time, Alix worked as an unpaid intern in New York City, like two of the characters, and she explained, "This is my generation, Mom." That was three years ago. As the characters have remained stuck, whiny, and selfdestructive, the original audience for the show grew up. …

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