By **Sam Kerbel**
In the most recent Guernica issue, Deb Olin Unferth offers a compelling argument for the legitimacy of the memoir as a literary form. She defends the rich legacy of the memoir genre and highlights several pieces that “explore memoir in a decidedly contemporary manner” while also “showing an understanding of past tradition.” These memoirs, Unferth suggests, demonstrate a keen balance of emotion and style that makes them not simply captivating pieces of personal history but also high forms of art.
Neil Genzlinger, a New York Times staff editor, provides a different story altogether. In a recent review of four memoirs, Genzlinger laments how “the current age of oversharing” has caused people to write dull memoirs “about the unexceptional.” Memoirs, Genzlinger argues, were once written by talented writers who accomplished remarkable feats, while “ [u]nremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.” Today, however, memoirs have become exercises in self-pity.
To be sure, the Unferth and Genzlinger camps are not mutually exclusive. They both, for instance, wax poetic about the memoir tradition. But Genzlinger condemns the assumption that everyone wants to read about exceedingly ordinary lives and, furthermore, that mediocre writers have the legitimacy to record them.
Genzlinger’s argument is a necessary one, as it addresses larger issues about art in the age of Facebook, Twitter, and blogging. But it also overlooks a significant aspect of the memoir tradition: speaking for the unheard.
No person has the authority to decide what qualifies as a worthy memoir (this delusion of grandeur requires a significant amount of hubris on its own).
No one has confronted this task more profoundly than Mary Antin, a Jewish writer who immigrated to the United States from Poland in the late-nineteenth century. In the introduction to her 1912 memoir The Promised Land, Antin admits that she does not meet the criteria for writing an autobiography, which she believes should be a “death-bed confession.” Like Genzlinger, she entertains the notion that only individuals who have accomplished a “distinct task” can claim to have a story worth writing.
Nevertheless, Antin sets to composing her own personal history: “I am not yet thirty, counting in years, and I am writing my life history. Under which of the above categories do I find my justification? I have not accomplished anything, I have not discovered anything, not even by accident, as Columbus discovered America. My life has been unusual, but by no means unique. And this is the very core of the matter. It is because I understand my history, in its larger outlines, to be typical of many, that I consider it worth recording.”
For Antin, memoir writing may be driven in part by some egotistic desire to fulfill “private needs” or undergo some form of personal catharsis. Yet Antin also sees the memoir as a vehicle for documenting “scores of unwritten lives” that would otherwise pass into the dust. This empathetic imperative recalls Carlos Fuentes’s idea that writing is “a struggle against silence”: by recording her own experience, Antin amplifies the collective voice of myriad other immigrants who lacked her motivation and talent.
One should not assume, as Genzlinger suggests, that the majority of people who take the time to write personal histories do so out of pure self-indulgence. What at first appears unexceptional may offer comfort and wisdom to others who underwent a similar experience. Moreover, no person has the authority to decide what qualifies as a worthy memoir (this delusion of grandeur requires a significant amount of hubris on its own). As “unexceptional” as memoirs can be, the Mary Antins of the world make them worthwhile.
Copyright 2011 Sam Kerbel
Sam Kerbel is an editorial intern at Guernica.