Intoxicating and irresistible and maybe untrue

Rebecca Hussey

September 11, 2015

All writing advice is expendable. It is necessarily incomplete and reflects the advice-giver’s biases and preferences. Such advice can certainly be useful, but it offers only one version of what writing can be. This holds true for Mary Karr’s new book The Art of Memoir, an introduction to her theories about the genre, a compendium of suggestions for writing, and a close look at some of her favorite examples. The beguiling tone and the witty, lively style from her successful memoirs The Liars’ Club, _Cherry, and Lit are on full display in this new book. And yet her vision of what memoir can and should be is frustratingly limited. The book reveals just how hard, if not impossible, it is to sum up the “art” of any particular genre.

Karr claims she wants to reach memoir writers and readers, but she is most likely to find an appreciative audience amongst aspiring writers. She has much to offer to a new and struggling memoirist. Chapters on “How to Choose a Detail” and “Dealing with Beloveds (On and Off the Page)” can assist both with craft and personal relationships. Chapters such as “An Incomplete Checklist to Stave Off Dread” might help with motivation, while “The Truth Contract Twixt Writer and Reader” instructs writers on how to shape their stories effectively while sticking only to the facts. Examples and suggestions for further reading abound. Her close readings of texts are superb. She writes sentences that any writer might want to emulate: “In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right,” “Truth works a trip wire that permits the book to explode into being,” and “It’s ironic that the very redneckese I’d spent some time trying to rise above wound up branding my work like hot iron on a steer’s ass.” Her vulnerability, honesty, humor, and flair for language make this book, at times, hard to resist.

"In some ways, writing a memoir is knocking yourself out with your own fist, if it’s done right"

Karr places great emphasis on the emotional turmoil of memoir writing; for her, the form is about a quest for truth that can take the writer to uncomfortable places. It’s about being willing to face up to one’s flaws and mistakes. It can be a form of therapy and can be very, very hard. “Here’s how hard: everybody I know who wades deep enough into memory’s waters drowns a little.”

Ideally, all this delving into the self will pay off in the form of a genuine voice, which will then win over the reader:

A good writer can conjure a landscape and its people to live inside you, and the best writers make you feel they’ve disclosed their soft underbellies. Seeing someone naked thrills us a little.

It is not at all clear, however, that a work of art – even art that is about one’s life – has a necessary relationship to the author’s emotional intelligence. Surely there are other paths to an authentic, artful voice on the page than this model of memoir-as-therapy, than the exposure of “soft underbellies.” Karr recognizes that memoir is a construction, a shaped version of the writer’s life, but she is wary and suspicious of this proposition, too eager to push it aside. She calls the necessary selecting and shaping that a writer does “morally ominous.” But of course writers cannot get themselves directly on the page or relay in its complete fullness what happened to them. Shaping experience into art is not “morally ominous,” but is simply a part of the job.

Her wealth of advice for writers belies her claim that she is writing mainly for readers:

…the book’s mostly shaped for the general reader, and while I hope it can help such a human hone an affection for memoir as a form, I really hope to prompt some reflection about the reader’s own divided selves and ever-morphing past.

This is well and good, and perhaps some readers approaching this book want to reflect on their divided selves and ever-morphing pasts, guided by a wise and self-aware writer. But for a reader like me, who is more interested in memoir as art than memoir as therapy, this book is disappointing. Karr’s ideas about truth in memoir are confusing and inconsistent. She wants to defend a writer’s artistic freedom, which she would “go to the mat for”: “no writer can impose his own standards onto any other, nor claim to speak for the whole genre.” But at the same time, she argues strongly for the importance of veracity and takes Vivian Gornick to task for embellishing stories in her writing. And yet, she is okay with Michael Herr’s liberties with the truth:

Herr confesses that much of Dispatches was pieced together…Plus his lack of historical method is moot anyway. We read Herr not to nail down external events – the date of this bombing raid or that regimental movement – but to share the journey of the narrator’s terrified, puzzled, heartbroken, outraged psyche. So blurry and hallucinatory is his crazy-quilt collage, you’d no more look to him for facts than a court would privilege an eyewitness on ‘shrooms at the time.

She also has no problem with Harry Crews’s straying from the truth because “hyperbole to the point of unreality fits with Crews’s Georgia cracker milieu.” So sometimes, it seems, a writer’s vision excuses some falsehoods and embellishments and sometimes it doesn’t.

The difference among these writers, Karr would claim, is that Herr and Crews made it clear to the reader that they were taking liberties with the truth, while Gornick did so only after her book was published. But this does not mean that Gornick meant to deceive her readers, only that her idea of the truth she wanted to communicate to the reader is different from truth as Karr understands it. Karr writes, “Truth may have become a foggy, fuzzy nether area. But untruth is simple: making up events with the intention to deceive.” This definition of untruth is not at all simple, however. Does it include making up events with the intention of clarifying a truth? Does it include not making up events, but altering some details of an event, or collapsing two events into one, in order to communicate a truth? She writes, “it’s the busted liars who talk most volubly about the fuzzy line between nonfiction and fiction.” But surely it’s the philosophers and theorists of language who talk most volubly on this subject, and rightly so.

These are incredibly complicated questions – to what extent does a memoirist owe the reader the truth? What changes to or deviations from the truth are permissible? Is it even possible to be truthful in memoir? The Art of Memoir is instructive about these issues to the extent that it shows just how fraught they are. Other areas of the book are similarly revealing. Karr has strong ideas about what makes a good memoir, but these are undermined by her examples, which expand the possibilities of the genre, even as her own arguments limit them. Crucial for Karr is her emotional connection and identification with the memoirist as opposed to a novel’s narrator:

As I turn a novel’s pages, a first-person narrator may seduce me, but the fact that it’s all made up and not actually outlived oddly keeps me from drawing courage outside the book’s dream. The deep, mysterious sense of identification with a memoirist who’s confessed her past just doesn’t translate to a novelist I love, however deliciously written the work.

She presumes this is true for her readers as well: “However many intellectual pleasures a book may offer up, it’s your emotional connection to the memoir’s narrator that hooks you in.” This may or may not be true for most readers, but it’s not always true even for herself; writing about Nabokov’s memoir Speak, Memory, she says, “I started combing it for what isn’t there, which – it surprised me to find – is the kind of identification with a writer that hooks me into most other great memoirs.” Her chapter on Speak, Memory is appealing in its enthusiasm for everything that makes Nabokov unusual, but it could have been an opportunity to broaden her definition of what memoir can do. Nabokov’s work lacks:

…long-run dramatic stories of a deeply personal nature of the type we associate with normal plots. There’s no dialogue; the occasional instant or anecdote, but very few scenes…The writing is intoxicating and irresistible – but you can’t find your experience anywhere in it.

Nobody writes like Nabokov, but his example shows that the elements we traditionally associate with memoir, and that Karr herself associates with memoir, are not actually requirements of the genre. Her chapter on Maxine Hong Kingston’s Woman Warrior illustrates the same point. Her memoir is not straightforwardly truthful in the way Karr has elsewhere recommended, but incorporates fables and fantastical elements in order to communicate a deeper truth than strict realism could.

All of Karr’s advice on such things as truth-telling, sensory detail, structure and organization, the incorporation of information and facts, and the development of voice take on a different meaning in the light of her (beautiful, inspiring) chapters on memoirists who break all the “rules.” I suspect Karr would agree with me that her personal definition of a good memoir is not the only one available. But the strange structure of The Art of Memoir makes it difficult to tell. It could use a lengthier introduction that pulls the book’s various threads together more clearly. It is also repetitive, discussing the problem of truth in a similar way in multiple chapters and returning again and again to her arguments about self-awareness and voice. Some chapters contain no new information or ideas. Some chapters are extremely short and it’s not clear why they stand on their own. At one point Karr mentions “memoir’s five elements” but doesn’t define what these are. Her discussion of various types of memory is interesting but the terms aren’t clearly defined.

It feels like the book needed one more revision, to clarify and tighten and develop. My main complaint, however, stems from my mistrust of genre definitions and writing advice generally. Too often these place limits on the possible instead of opening it up. The writers Karr celebrates the most are those who break the “rules” and stretch the boundaries of the form, and how can you teach people to do that? The Art of Memoir is perhaps most valuable for the insight it offers into Karr’s own memoirs and for her excellent reading suggestions. It is also useful for people who aspire to write in her vein. It will make readers think more deeply about the genre, whether they agree with Karr’s vision of it or not.

Books in this review:
  • The Art of Memoir
    by Mary Karr
    September 14, 2015
    256 pages
    Purchased by SRoB
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Rebecca Hussey is a critic and professor at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut.

Follow Rebecca Hussey on Twitter: @ofbooksandbikes

Other recent reviews

December 04, 2018

Talk about the weather

Paul Constant

writes about
  • Interpretative Guide to Western-Northwest Weather Forecasts
    by Marian Blue

    March 27, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound
November 27, 2018

The man show

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Sexiest Man Alive
    by Amber Nelson

    October 01, 2018
    72 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy online
November 13, 2018

Accidentally honest

Paul Constant

writes about
  • The Shame of Losing
    by Sarah Cannon

    October 01, 2018
    264 pages
    Provided by author
    Buy on IndieBound