Monday, March 19, 2012

It's a Good Memoir, but Is It Art?

Today I read a terrific article by Richard Gilbert on his blog, "Narrative":

"The Leverage of Persona in Memoir."

He talks about memoirs by Jeanette Walls, Harry Crews and Annie Dillard. I'll confess that I've not read Crews, but I was very interested in his take on Walls and Dillard--especially Walls, whose memoir about her dysfunctional childhood, The Glass Castle, became a best-seller. (I met Walls and did a post about her in January of 2011.)

Gilbert quoted some from a review Francine Prose did of The Glass Castle for the New York Times Book Review in 2005. I appreciated many of Prose's points, but I can't wrap my mind around this comment:

"The Glass Castle falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir."

I'm still not sure what she means by "a very good memoir" that isn't art. Read the review and Gilbert's blog post yourself if you're interested, and follow the discussion in the comments. (Forgive my typo in the comment I left... I'm always embarrassed when I do that on a writer's blog!) The main question I am still pondering is this (which I asked in my comment): are memoirs categorized as "commercial" and "literary" the way novels are? And if so, can a "commercial memoir" be a "really good memoir" and yet not be art? Does Prose mean that something must be literary to be art? Or does she mean, as she discusses in her review, that the memoir must do more than tell a good narrative.... that it must relay the soul of the protagonist and how the story/circumstances affected that person's life?

I'm thinking about these issues as I come near the end of the novel I'm writing. I am trying to write literary fiction, and I certainly hope my main characters' voices come through strong. But above all, I hope I am creating art.


Tina Fariss Barbour said...

I read Gilbert's blog post, but not Prose's review (just what Gilbert quoted).

I think perhaps some may not consider Walls book (which I haven't read either) art because of the lack of reflection that Gilbert and Prose seem to refer to. There's not a transformation, which many memoirists consider key to the genre.

But I'm speaking a bit blindly here, not having read Walls' book. A local book club did read it last year, and several members told me they had a hard time believing the book, thinking of it as more fiction than memoir. I sensed in them almost a sense of betrayal.

I tend to want to see the transformation, too, because otherwise, it's autobiography. I wouldn't even call it memoir. Which is fine, if that if what the author wants to do.

That's just my opinion about memoir in general.

Susan Cushman said...

I'm curious why your book club friends thought The Glass Castle was more fiction than memoir. I loved the book, and also met Walls in person and have watched several interview she has given, and unless she's lying, this is a real story. Whether or not she showed enough reflection and/or transformation for it to be truly art, as memoir, is what is being debated, I think. Perhaps she didn't emote enough in her narrative. But some say the memoirist should leave something for the reader to decide how to feel about. I can see both sides, actually. THANKS for reading and commenting, Tina.

Patrick Ross said...

There is, perhaps, a larger question here, namely the extent to which CNF is appreciated as art. Sue Silverman, in her "Meandering River" essay, talks about CNF as a spectrum, with biography on one end and lyric essays on the other end. She talks about the extent to which those types of prose are viewed as "creative," and the lyric essay--often more challenging to dissect than the most obtuse poem--is more often labeled "creative" than, say, a memoir. The great challenge in any CNF is that you are presenting facts, and in some people's minds, this is limiting on creativity. I find it is just the opposite, and like to quote Twain, who wrote both and said fiction is easier because it has to be believable. (!) Maybe the lesson here is to not worry so much what somebody else considers "art," and just focus on what we feel speaks to us.

Susan Cushman said...

Great thoughts, Patrick... especially that last line. That's pretty much what my friend, David Lyons, said on Facebook about all this bru ha ha. But since art speaks to me much more than straight narrative, that's what I'll be shooting for in my own writing. Just saying:-) THANKS FOR READING AND COMMENTING!

Bob Norton said...

I loved Glass Castle. While Jeanette is certainly a great storyteller, I believe the emotional content and transformation were there, for sure. Art is in the eye of the beholder.