Yesterday, I read some interesting comments from Aleksandar Hemon in the March/April issue of the Writer’s Chronicle (an aside here that only editors will care about: although the website uses The Writer’s Chronicle, the actually publication from AWP uses the Writer’s Chronicle on the cover, so I went with the latter). Hemon is a writer who came to the United States from Bosnia in 1992 and is the author of two novels (The Lazarus Project and Nowhere Man) and two collections of short stories (The Question of Bruno and Love and Obstacles). He was interviewed for this publication by Jeanie Chung, whose fiction has appeared in Timber Creek Review, Madison Review, Hunger Mountain, and upstreet, among other places.
In the course of the interview, Hemon is critical of “memoiristic writing.” Although he talks most specifically about full-length memoirs, his comments could be construed to target essays as well. He says, in part:
“But what I meant to say was this: there is an overflow of memoiristic writing, and there are many problems with that. Not many people really deserve to tell their stories, and they don’t really have much to say. Also, they’re painting themselves into a corner, because how many books of addiction can you write in a lifetime?”
A little later he says:
“…this refusal to enter literature, to create fictional work, to ply the imagination, to start from scratch, that to me is cowardly. You have to risk, I think. There is something so safe when someone tells you, ‘Your story’s interesting. Just tell it. Don’t make anything up.'”
“In memoiristic nonfiction, the writer can’t become other people, because it’s all about his or her situation. The book is so specific to what the writer thinks because it’s a confession. As a reader, you can only listen to the confession. You cannot really enter anything. There is no exchange. And that’s really kind of playing it safe.”
And one final quote (I can’t quote the whole, lengthy interview of course, as folks should buy the magazine and read it):
“The genre is practically dead because it is always the same thing: addiction, despair, some kind of abuse.”
The last comment is not a new observation; in fact there was a recent piece in The New York Times (and they DO capitalize the “T”, editors) that said largely that. Unfortunately, I can’t recall the name of the writer or the piece and a quick search didn’t come up with it, but I’m sure many of you read the article, which was discussed relatively widely at the time. I think there is just a smidgen of truth to the idea that too many books about the same types of things — “addiction, despair, some kind of abuse” — might inspire readers to feel that the entire genre of memoir is about these topics, and to ask the question more and more: “What does this writer have to offer that’s new or different?” But that’s not a bad question, it’s a good and important one. It’s probably the question agents and publishers ask all the time, and if it’s answered well — this writer has a unique and artistic way of expressing what happened, or explores issues with unusual courage and insight that will lead the reader to consider things in a new light, or comes at a topic from a new angle that hasn’t been fully explored, or is a fantastic writer that keeps you glued to the page simply because he/she tells a compelling story with a strong narrative arc that has moments of surprise and revelation — then I don’t think there’s a problem. I mean, how many times in fiction has the same basic story been told (think boy meets girl…), but just in new and interesting ways, featuring new and interesting characters?
Overall, I think this critique of “memoiristic writing” (he is careful not to include literary journalism) is off base. To me, it shows a lack of understanding about how a good writer of creative nonfiction, including memoir, DOES use the imagination (the title of the interview is “I Believe in Imagination”). You use your imagination to take a string of events, transform them into a narrative that works, and then interpret them, find meaning. Without meaning, the story is nothing. It’s true that if your work only involves confession and a focus on “you,” it is not likely to be interesting to many readers. But as creative nonfiction writers learn early on, the narrator in a CNF piece is not really “you.” As a writer, you have to find a voice and a point of view that works with each piece, and that’s not a lot different than creating a character. Characters usually drive fiction, and narrators usually drive creative nonfiction. Both require work to develop. It’s true that as a CNF writer, you’re not making up the narrator’s background or the facts/events in the story. But everything else–the voice of the narrator, the way you use language, how the narrative is crafted, what details are included or left out, the revelations gleaned from events and how the meaning is brought forth–comes from your writing skill and imagination.
I’m not sure what Hemon means when he says: “Not many people really deserve to tell their stories….” His comment seems to imply that not everyone’s lives are so interesting that they need to be turned into stories for readers (which is pretty much what that article in The New York Times said). But I am not sure that it is the story, or the life even, that provides the most important point of interest. I think it is the writer, the artist. If you are an artist with a particular viewpoint, and a unique way of expressing that viewpoint, then that is what is interesting. Take still life paintings, for example. How many artists have painted an apple, a vase, or a peach? Does that mean that apples, vases, and peaches don’t deserve to be painted anymore, or that no one else deserves to pain them? Of course not. What makes a great still life interesting or beautiful is the particular artist’s interpretation of what is right in front of them, expressed through his or her insight and skill. No one else will ever see and paint sunflowers the way Van Gogh did.
I am definitely not criticizing Hemon. I have not read his books, but this post is not about his work, so I felt that it was OK to write it. Considering his resume (MacArthur “genius” grant, Guggenheim fellowship) my guess is that he’s a wonderful, intelligent writer, and I am interested in reading his fiction. I love fiction. I am inspired by fiction, and I hope I will try my hand at it at some point. But I feel that this categorical dismissal of “memoiristic writing” is a bit unfair, at least in the many cases when this type of writing is done well.
It’s funny for me to hear that someone considers the writer of memoirs “cowardly,” because I have always thought such writers were quite brave to spill it all out like that. It’s easy to hide in a novel. No so in a memoir.
This was a great post. You are always so insightful and so kind. I am not so nice. I think Hemon (as great a writer as society may have deemed him) is yet another arrogant fiction writer who is clueless about what memoir/creative nonfiction writing is. You explain it so well here, Faye.
I remember the NY Times piece, too, and my reaction is the same: bad writing is bad writing and it’s not genre-specific. If you have the ability to tell yet another bad/abused childhood memoir, and mesmerize your reader, then bravo to you. If you can do as a fictional story, awesome. Or as poetry, go for it.
And one other point: Memoir is not always a horror story. There are travel memoirs and humorous memoirs and nature memoirs, for example. And each human being has endless stories to tell and endless ways in which to tell them, if he or she digs deep and finds the artful way to tell the story (as you explain so well.)
Hemon, like the NY Times guy, never acknowledges the plethora of CRAP that sits in the “FICTION” section of every bookstore – the mass market novels, the genre novels, the quick-sell novels. My point is: We can trash any genre. It must be nice to sit up on a high horse and play God of Literature, call people cowards. I think it’s more worthwhile for all writers to support each others’ earnest efforts to create good literary work. Good writing is good writing.