Two Memoirs and Much Grumbling
in which I embarrass myself by kvetching about my critics
I’ve written two things lately. (Well, I’ve written a number of things lately, but only two of them are out yet.) They’re both reviews of memoirs, one of which I loved, one of which I did not love. Weirdly, both of them end with “land.”
The memoir I loved is Heather Havrilesky’s funny, wise, warm meditation on marriage, Foreverland, which was very aggressively misread by a number of tabloid journalists and B-list celebrities with no sense of humor/irony. Havrilesky excels at hyperbole, and her book’s subject is how prolonged intimacy inevitably gives rise to irritations—irritations that she is at great pains to point out are not inconsistent with love but part and parcel of it. Predictably, the great literary sophisticates at The New York Post somehow came away from all comedic nuance this with the headline “Wife Calls Husband ‘Insane,’ Hates her Husband.” Here’s my attempt at a corrective in The New Yorker: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/heather-havrileskys-guide-to-enduring-married-life
The memoir I did not love is Rebecca Mead’s Home/land, an account of her decision to move from New York to her native England in the wake of Trump’s election. In brief, I thought the book was a bit insular. You can read what I wrote about it in the New York Times Book Review here: https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/08/books/review/home-land-rebecca-mead.html
Now comes a momentous occasion: the moment when I decide whether I am going to become one of those writers I’ve always found so vicariously embarrassing—writers who argue with reviewers who don’t like their books, or who publicly correct very flagrant misreaders of their work. I removed myself from Twitter in part in hopes of achieving the sort of sublime serenity that allows a person to write X, see someone read them as having written not-X, and continue happily about their day, secure in the confidence that people who are competent at reading will get the message. Alas, I am (and no doubt will remain) a petty bitch who loves to luxuriate in a grudge, the way that healthy and wholesome people love to luxuriate in warm baths. In other words, I am simply not capable of suffering a blatant misreading. The rule I’m making for myself is the following: I will not argue with people who dislike my writing, nor will I intervene when I feel I have been misread at some airy artistic or metaphorical level, but I will absolutely and unreptently gripe and kvetch to my heart’s content when someone straightforwardly misunderstands what I’m saying in the most basic way. In this case, what I said was: many people think memoir is an intrinsically self-indulgent genre, but I think that they are stupid; books are good or bad not in virtue of what they’re about but in virtue of how they’re constructed; of course not all memoirs are bad; I disliked Home/land not because I think all memoirs are self-indulgent, but because it happens to be self-indulgent. What I was taken by a random man, the current object of my pointless and procrastinatory ire, to be saying was: memoir is an intrinsically self-induldgent genre, and I hate all memoirs.
The man in question, Wayne from Oregon, in his own words:
What I said, in my own words:
“In recent years, it has become fashionable to claim that a person needs special license to write about herself — that she must be extraordinarily famous, unusually rich or fantastically traumatized if she is to venture one of those embarrassing indulgences, a memoir. A person who insists on documenting an uneventful life is guilty of self-importance and so, accordingly, it has become fashionable to blame the defects of a book on the defects of its genre. Common wisdom has it that a work of autobiography is by nature doomed to insularity. In point of fact, a book is justified by its quality, not its subject. “Home/Land,” a new book by the New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead, does not falter by virtue of belonging to the reviled species of memoir; rather, it flails because it is insufficiently interested in the external world….“Home/Land” is a casualty not of its genre but of its impregnable inwardness.”
Like Havrilesky, I made the mistake of assuming that irony was legible not only to bullies on the literary playground (????)—though I do love the image of myself beating writers up and taking their lunch money, I must say—but to, you know, people who read books and reviews of them. One simply dispairs of the prospect of communication between two human souls when one is this explicit and yet is nonetheless so flagrantly and utterly misunderstood. In sum, it would be a pity if anyone besides Wayne of Portland, Oregon, came away from this piece believing that I hate all memoirs: I’ve actually long meant to write something about how silly I think it is to dismiss all entries in a given genre, and how annoying I find fashionable tirades against personal writing. Surely no one reasonable could possibly find fault with Cynthia Ozick’s beautiful essay, “A Drugstore in Winter,” simply because it is autobiographical. (Incidentally, it’s probably my favorite essay ever. Here it is! https://english1bsection37257.files.wordpress.com/2014/03/a-drugstore-in-winter.pdf). Anyway, I’ll save what would surely be a more interesting essay on the silliness of dismissing all personal writing for a day when I have less of a brain-addling cold.
Long live the well-written memoir, and best of luck to Wayne in his future irony-detecting endeavors!