Reviews — From the September 2008 issue

Books and Circuses

The politics of literary scapegoating

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Perhaps the most degraded level on which we may find ourselves reading a memoir is that of pure gossip. A friend from San Francisco told me that one reason Sean Wilsey’s Oh the Glory of It All was such a hit in his native city was that many people felt they were acquainted (from life, or from the society pages) with the wicked stepmother whom Wilsey portrays, with understandable relish, as the socialite equivalent of a fanged, taloned fairy-tale villain. This approach may be all but unavoidable when we actually do know the writer or any of the characters who figure in the narrative. That might have been the case for literary Manhattanites reading Her Last Death, the well- received memoir by Susanna Sonnenberg, whose father (name changes did little to disguise the identities of the principals) was a prominent figure on the New York cultural scene. At its extreme, such a reading can assume the rhythm of a curious child paging through a steamy novel in search of the dirty bits, or of a celebrity-gossip hound reading a Hollywood roman à clef, skimming for insinuations too libelous for the tabloids.

The next level on which memoirs can be read involves our sense that a writer is telling the world something we might not confide to our best friend. This sort of reading experience is provided by the increasingly crowded subgenre of autobiographies that portray the outrageous exploits of parents who have remained, in the writer’s memory, larger than life, just as they would have seemed to a child. Some of the most popular recent memoirs—Augusten Burroughs’s Running with Scissors, Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle—fall into this group. The writer’s courage or boldness in making the private public may be part of the reason why so many first-person accounts (Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is yet another example) may fulfill a self-help function, and why thousands of readers find their encounters with these intimate narratives to be less voyeuristic than therapeutic. The traumas of the reader’s own dysfunctional childhood or painful divorce seem suddenly less taboo, less isolating, less fraught. Hidden secrets may come spilling out in the supportive context of the book group—a less expensive alternative to psychotherapy—and the reader may feel heartened and encouraged by the fact that the writer (such as Margaret B. Jones) has not only survived but triumphed.

To read in this way is to enter into a relationship with a book and a writer that is not only extra-literary but personal, a phenomenon that may be partly responsible for the orgies of recrimination that have followed the exposure of memoirists with faulty recall or vivid imaginations. It’s less as if a writer has lied or exaggerated than as if one’s therapist has been found guilty of practicing with false credentials.

is a contributing editor of Harper’s Magazine. Her new novel, Goldengrove, will be published in September.

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