Guest editor Deb Olin Unferth offers insights into the art of the memoir and introduces the present and future stars of the genre.

Unferth-575.jpgPhotograph via Flickr by Alice Carrier

Let’s have no more insults hurled at the memoir, shall we?

A few years ago, when I began writing a memoir, I read piles of them to get a feel for the genre. I read the older “autobiographies,” where the author tries to cover every event in his or her life. The modernist autobiographies are especially good: Paul Bowles, in his dry, witty manner, writes Without Stopping as a Leviticus-style document of every person he met, place he visited, and conversation he had. (My own father’s father wrote such a book and left it for us when he died: he lists every parking ticket, baseball game, and tank of gas, with, sadly, little mention of my father.) Gertrude Stein, in a brilliantly subversive way of sidestepping the problem of having to describe herself, writes her wife’s autobiography, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—which turns out to be a hilarious biography of Stein written by Stein.

In the final decades of the twentieth century, the autobiography transformed, as writers began to see the disadvantages of writing blanket summaries of their lives and comprehensive lists of events: the messiness involved in such a project, the inevitable incompleteness, the necessary lack of an arc (if one was going to be honest). Writers began framing their autobiographies, selecting experiences that would contribute to an overall narrative shape of their choosing. The resulting books were as much studies of memory and memory’s mishaps and strangenesses as they were records of lives. These books have become what we think of as the memoir. I count Stop-Time by Frank Conroy as a transition book—too scene-filled to be an autobiography, but not narratively muscular enough to be a memoir (and, interestingly, although Conroy was born over twenty-five years after Bowles, his memoir was published in 1967, a few years before Bowles’s, so you can here witness evidence of the messy transition period). Also consider Lenny Bruce’s fierce How to Talk Dirty and Influence People (1963), which opens like an autobiography—with earliest memories and childhood pranks—but grows into a sort of memoir-rant against the police forces and censors, which were eventually his undoing.

Then we begin to see the pivotal classics, such as Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family (1982), Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life (1989), Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995). These books opened the floodgates and inspired the next generation and the generation after that to confront the memoir form and produce some of the most exciting, innovative, and moving writing of the twenty-first century. Books such as Sarah Manguso’s Two Kinds of Decay, Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up (yes, Steve Martin!), and Darin Strauss’s Half a Life have taken the Karr/Wolff model and raised them one, in much the way Denis Johnson read Carver and wrote Jesus’ Son and Sam Lipsyte read Jesus’ Son and wrote Venus Drive. We also start seeing the odd ducks: what do we do with Dave Eggers’s ground-breaking What Is the What: The Autobiography of Valentino Achak Deng, a Novel, where Eggers writes an autobiography for someone completely unrelated to Eggers? (He himself may have been unsure what to do with it, since he calls it “a novel” and yet there Deng, the subject of the book, stands at events, ready to take questions.) What do we do with Lydia Davis’s shorts, those little masterpieces, records of isolated patterns of thought? (Also presented as fiction, more for lack of a better term—are they essays? are they poems?—than anything else.) These are happy problems to have. In writing my own memoir, I was stirred by this artistic energy surrounding the form, and I wanted to contribute. I wanted to walk over to the memoir keyboard and strike my own new note.

When Meakin Armstrong of Guernica brought up the possibility of my guest-editing a section, I immediately knew what I wanted to do: a section on innovative memoir. Let’s once and for all dismiss the notion that the memoir is a lesser form.

The writers I chose each explore memoir in a decidedly contemporary manner, while at the same time showing an understanding of the past tradition.

In Rozalia Jovanovic’s “Self Walking Backward,” the title alone is striking—a sort of literal image of the word memory—and when you discover in the first line that “Self” does not refer to “myself” but to a person, Peter Self, you can’t help but be delighted. In this piece, Jovanovic appears to be harking back to an autobiographical approach, documentary-style reporting, but as you read, you are subtly directed by Jovanovic’s hand to a deeply emotional place.

The writers I chose each explore memoir in a decidedly contemporary manner, while at the same time showing an understanding of the past tradition.

In Joshua Cohen’s piece, he invents other people to tell his autobiography. Everyone from intimates to strangers has something to add, and they describe him in half-truths, verifiable facts, and heart-breaking lies. Through them all, the object of their observation, Joshua Cohen, is revealed—his fears, his desires, his love habits, his family’s history. This piece calls to mind the book Michael Martone by Michael Martone, one of the most intriguing memoirs of our time for its paradoxical use in autobiography of the unreliable narrator.

Antonia Blair’s piece is an excellent ambassador from the graphic novel world, which has experienced a memoir explosion in recent years. In 1986 Art Spiegelman, of the Karr/Wolff era, published the first volume of Maus, and ever since artists have been scrambling onto his back in an effort to reach the sky: Alison Bechdel (Fun Home), David B. (Epileptic), Julie Doucet (My Most Secret Desire), and Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis) are some exceptional ones to start with.

In Clancy Martin’s naughty confessional piece, a list-story of the sort he is so good at, he brings us—and himself—to a dangerous emotional place with a reckless swagger that again and again breaks down into quiet moments of vulnerability. The use of the list helps him to move around in time with ease.

Porochista Khakpour’s and Ben Ryder Howe’s pieces are beautiful counterpoints to each other. Each uses a traditional literary conceit: the setup of a symbolic object that makes the protagonist nervous (camel and cash register, respectively). Then a nearby character (father and mother-in-law) pushes the protagonist toward this object, creating two layers of conflict, internal and external. From very different perspectives, each author uses this conflict to look sideways at the difficult topic of what it means to be an American. (Look for these last three on February 15, 2011.)

I could go on about memoir for much longer but instead I’ll stop and urge you to read and enjoy these pieces and to seek out more. Look especially for Louise Krug’s forthcoming memoir about being a brain surgery patient at twenty-two. Her unorthodox use of point of view is going to astonish you, I promise.


Deb Olin Unferth is the author, most recently, of the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War. Her work has appeared in Harper’s, McSweeney’s, The Believer, NOON, and The Boston Review. A Harper’s Bazaar “Name to Know in 2011,” she has received two Pushcart Prizes, the Cabell First Novelist Award, and a Creative Capital grant for Innovative Literature.

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