Lorrie Moore on Memoirs

She’s a smarter writer than everyone, so when she takes on this sort of thing we’re all smart to listen.

Dinty W. Moore (let’s hope there’s a relation but I doubt it) over at the calls her thing absurd and writes it off as “memoir bashing.” He’s upset that Lorrie Moore seems (anti-Shieldsly) to prefer novels, to assume that stories about real people would be better told in the novel form. But he’s missed the point, I think. See here, from Moore’s review (my emphasis):

Though [such reportage-based info as] epidemiology and public policy might disrupt the poetry of bereavement, a reader can long to see eloquent tears made useful. Memoirs often exist precisely for this reason—and their improvised form allows for accommodations of this kind without intruding on any narrative magic. Certainly [family members] remain engaging subjects deserving of the deep imagining, revealing design, and solid construction of heroines in good prose fiction, but real life is messy and sometimes gracelessly crowds out an enduring story, something no memoir reader necessarily expects. Advocacy of a certain kind can be a memoirst’s muse and companion and in any case is not a guest that will ruin the party. Even Nabokov’s canonical Speak, Memory does not give us the brilliantly vivid and coherent dreams of his novels—because it simply can’t.

In short, memoirs aren’t lesser than novels, they’re nonfiction. And novels are fiction. And while “the gold standard” (as Lorrie argues) for memoir may be the novel’s “subtle characterizations and rich and continuous dreamscape,” nonfiction as a directly intimate form doesn’t so much disallow continuous dreamscape, as it makes continuous dreamscape feel like coloring with only one crayon from the box.

Imagine writing a novel where everything was made up, but done so exclusively through dialogue. Like a radio drama, say. It would be a bad novel, because lesser.* Novels can get so quickly and thoroughly into people’s interiority. So with, Lorrie Moore argues, the work of nonfiction that hinges too fully on straight narrative. We can talk with our readers. We can show them some research. We can connect—frankly and out loud—the lives of people we love among grander landscapes and fuller social concerns. Novels, prissily, won’t abide such business (unless Tom Wolfe’s doing it). Shouldn’t memoirs, if we’re to see them as a form of their own, embrace it?

* Okay, yeah, I read Nicholson Baker’s Vox, too, so I see the inaptness of this analogy.

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