Why read memoir?

Feb. 21, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

You probably didn’t read many memoirs in English class in high school. If you’re still taking English at Stanford, you probably haven’t read many memoirs here, either (ExploreCourses confirms that some ethnic studies and English classes do include memoirs in their syllabi, but they hardly represent the mainstream English curriculum). Historically, memoir was considered a “lower” form of writing, not worthy of being labeled real literature. It was too personal, too self-absorbed for the critics of decades past. Even in the last few decades, memoir has been considered a popular genre rather than a literary genre, often treated with the same amusement as John Grisham novels among literary types.

However, the past two decades or so have seen a renaissance for the memoir form. Authors like Tobias Wolff, Mary Karr and Cheryl Strayed have inserted the memoir into the front and center of literary conversations, merging humor, self-critical honesty and epiphany into books that not only keep the pages turning, but change minds, hearts and — perhaps more importantly —perspectives about the world we inhabit, past and present.

I used to be, per the mainstream literary-snob opinion, skeptical of the memoir. For the first half of high school, I had a “War and Peace”-or-bust mindset towards my reading list (not that I’ve ever read “War and Peace,” but perhaps that’s precisely the point). I wanted to read the books that had shaped our wisest minds and our culture at large: the Hemingways and the Faulkners and the Morrisons of the bookstore shelves. These books, lauded as the defining artifacts of their respective generations, would teach me about the world in a way that only fiction could.

I did read some of these books, and I did enjoy them. Some of them moved me deeply, sometimes to tears (other times, I was simply moved into confusion, followed by an existential crisis about my intellectual and emotional capacity to appreciate great literature). Books like “A Farewell to Arms” broke my heart, taught me about the past and showed me what unique, brilliant prose looked like on the page. Fiction transfixed me the same way that one might be transfixed by the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

But I have a confession to make: through all of the great novels I’ve read, I rarely felt myself, my life and my experience of American culture represented on the page. Partially, this was due to the age of the novels I read, but there was more: fiction had a heroic depth that, quite frankly, did not align with the slightly-amusing banality of my daily existence. My misfortunes did not feature battle scenes or brutal miscarriages, but things like losing friends, negotiating petty family grievances, juggling self-criticism and self-compassion and thinking about what the hell I was going to do with my life.

Not exactly the stuff of great literature, last time I checked. But it just might be the stuff of great memoir.

First, to clear up a common misconception: memoirs are not autobiographies. Autobiographies cover a person’s whole life, hinging on a person’s career success. Famous people write autobiographies because others actually care about their formative years, their professional experiences and their reflections on an entire life well (or infamously) lived. Memoirs, on the other hand, articulate the lives of normal civilians. They focus on particular themes or periods of a person’s life, telling a story through an almost fictitious narrative frame. Facts and historical moments take a backseat to lived memories, as they’ve been contoured over years of personal growth and reflection. Memoir is the gritty stuff, the little shards that may not fit together perfectly because life doesn’t, either.

Memoir does not tie up all the loose ends and does not glide along a plot arc like a work of fiction. It is not always profound or brilliant or tragic. But it is real life, or as close to real life as you can possibly get in the form of a paperback book. It is the closest we can get to living another person’s real story, and the closest we can get to walking a mile in another’s shoes.

Memoir is, in my experience, the best way to immerse yourself in a new perspective that really existed, or exists, in the same world we all inhabit. Particularly in this political and cultural moment, I cannot think of a better medium for helping us understand and and empathize with one another than the memoir. Whether it’s Mary Karr’s “Lit” or J.D. Vance’s stunning “Hillbilly Elegy,” memoir has the power to bring us together and unearth our mutual humanity in a way that newsreels and 800-word articles fail to do.

Memoir may not be literature in the canonical sense of the word, but if literature’s primary purpose is to help humans understand each other — and I believe that it is — then memoir deserves a front-and-center place on the literary shelf. So take a break from reading the same unintelligible paragraph of “Ulysses” for the fifth time over and crack open a bestselling modern memoir. Even the literary snobs out there, I believe, will not be disappointed.


Contact Avery Rogers at averyr ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

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