Does Susan Orlean Hate Memoirs/Memoirists?


(Playing at magazine-cover headlines. Playing a game called “Be The Atlantic Monthly”.)

In the current (Summer [?!?] 2011) issue of Creative Nonfiction, Gutkind chats with Susan Orlean in a sushi restaurant in Greenwich Village, because why not do this? Here’s what she has to say about memoirs, the indisputable bread-and-butter of the CNF empire:

[A] lot of the people whom I teach don’t appreciate the idea of paying dues and starting small and making themselves useful. I think they picture themselves writing their memoirs, and they don’t even seem to walk logically through the idea: Why would someone want to run a 20,000-word piece of a memoir by a 22-year-old? They don’t seem as interested in the world around them as they are in themselves, and as a result, I don’t think they see how they can be useful as reporters. I do think the whole memoir mania has had a certain effect on that. People 20 years ago might have thought, “I want to write nonfiction, so I’ve got to learn about the world,” and now they’re thinking, “I really want to write nonfiction, and my memoir will be called….” Nobody I knew thought about writing a memoir when I was getting started. No one…. There was nothing appealing about it, even…. What people thought was, “If I get to be a writer, I’ll get to go to cool places and see cool things,” not, “I’ll get to detail how my boyfriend and I broke up.” When that’s what you’re writing about, I think what you’re doing is thinking someone will discover the wonderfulness of this thing you’ve written rather than thinking, “I’m part of an industry of learning and talking and communicating and writing; how can I find my way in that industry?” It’s a very different perspective.

If you’re a member of the memoir industry you can write this off as “memoir bashing.” And yet no one seems to be calling Orlean out as bashing the memoir. (At least, not yet…this issue just came to me by mail, which but then means given the South’s version of the USPS that the rest of the country’s likely had it for weeks.)

Remember when Lorrie Moore made herself enemy no. 1 of the memoir? The year, kids, was 2011. Obama was president. Prince William was getting married to that beautiful Kate Middleton. And Lorrie Moore reviewed a group of recent memoirs and had this to say about the genre as a whole:

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 memoirist’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.

Despite the same interest in NF and “useful”ness, these two critiques don’t overlap too much. Moore’s asking memoirists to think of the ways their private stories may open up to public advocacy, while pointing out that the memoir need not try to beat the novel at its own game. This seems a far fairer critique than Orlean, who seems basically to be saying “Why are young people writing about themselves?”

That she’s saying it in Creative Nonfiction is both nothing short of a scandal, and yet perhaps the very thing that’ll spare Orlean any short-lived and quick-forgotten blog-attack that would otherwise come. Also this: she’s One of Ours. Lorrie Moore’s never written a memoir. Nor has Neil Genzlinger, who wrote another critique of self-centric memoirs in the Times back in January. (It was a mild winter, but the actor Charlie Sheen was making headlines for his wild-man ways….)

This is good, good news. Someone in the “world” of NF has some critical things to say about that world. It would behoove us all to listen, except that pages later Gutkind somehow gets Orlean to start complaining about what kids these days don’t read. “Half of them haven’t even read Tom Wolfe,” she says. “Talk about something that you figure is jazzy and fun for young people.”

I’m going to just type that out again: Talk about something that you figure is jazzy and fun for young people.

I’m going now to quote Didion (a [sometime] memoirist!): “This last, or they’re-trying-to-tell-us-something approach, reached its apogee in a Time cover story which revealed that hippies ‘scorn money — they call it “bread”‘ and remains the most remarkable, if unwitting, extant evidence that the signals between the generations are irrevocably jammed.”

Wolfe’s been a novelist for literal decades, and he hasn’t earned decent reviews since jellybean jars filled the Oval Office. Is it this? Is it that writers of my parents’ generation were yelled at so fully by their elders about what they weren’t reading, or who they weren’t successfully writing like, that these same beleaguered boys and girls, now with book contracts and the fame they’ve worked hard for, feel the need, Rush-Chairman-style, to haze the shit out of the rest of us?


2 thoughts on “Does Susan Orlean Hate Memoirs/Memoirists?”

  1. Nice post, clever. You know, I am torn on this issue. I come down squarely in the middle: I think students need to learn to tell their own stories, kind of first, really, and build on that to tell others’. In my unfortunately named Feature Writing class I have them do both kind of at the same time. But I do believe, and tell them, that they can never tell anyone else’s story worth a darn if they don’t learn to tell their own. Conversely, in creative nonfiction I have them do some reporting, get out in the world and have to get down things and people outside their narrow path.

    Enjoying your blog.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *