Sunday, February 7, 2010


My reading goes in spurts: a geyser of fiction followed by science non-fiction followed by something else. Lately I have been reading memoirs. There is no particular reason for this, but in the last few weeks I have read Elizabeth Gilbert's EAT, LOVE, PRAY (which is going to be a "major motion picture" next year), and Ayelet Waldman's BAD MOTHER. Next up: Carrie Fisher's WISHFUL DRINKING. Gilbert copes with spirituality, Waldman with motherhood, and Fisher with alcoholism. Apparently you cannot have a life without a theme.

The Waldman, although very well written, troubled me. She is a essayist for Salon, and is married to novelist (and Nebula winner) Michael Chabon. They have four children, and would have had five had Waldman not chosen to abort their third child several months into the pregnancy because genetic analysis revealed that the child had a genetic defect that would have resulted in physical and/or mental abnormalities. The doctors could not say at that point if the abnormalities would be mild or severe.

Waldman writes about all this with terrifying honesty. She details her position, Chabon's position (not the same), the agonizing that went into the final decision, Chabon's support, her regrets and reactions and feeling that she would do the same thing if offered the choice again. I'm not going to comment on her choice, but rather on her memoir. Everything is exposed here: sexual history, marital disagreements, her children's difficulties (one is ADHD, one was born with a palate abnormality that made it impossible for him to breast feed) -- everything. The author says she cleared all this exposure with her husband and with the two children old enough to understand (although at 10 and 14, can they really?) Even so, I wondered what daughter Sophie is going to think someday about knowing so much about her mother's sex life.

The whole thing made me reflect on Freud's comment that memoirs must be "of necessity mendacious," leaving out a person's genuine, complex, often unattractive inner life. Freud made his statement long before the modern tell-all atmosphere that produced Waldman. So I asked myself, just as a hypothetical, could I ever write my own memoirs? We're leaving aside the question of whether anyone would be remotely interested in reading them ("No"). Would I want to choose either Waldman's brutal honesty or Freud's mendacious acceptability?

I would not. My life has not been as fraught with drama as Waldman's or Fisher's, but it's been fraught enough. The autobiographies of SF writers that I have read -- Pohl, Asimov -- have been interesting but also lacking; I know enough about these people to know what's been left out. I would want to neither put in the juicy stuff nor leave it out. Besides, my life lacks a theme.

None of which stops me from reading other people's memoirs. And with relish.


Lee Capps said...

For what it's worth, I have more difficulty believing in memoirs than I do fiction (all other things equal -- i.e., the writing).

I think what Freud said still applies in a complicated way. The contemporary, tell-all memoir plumps the modern virtues of "brutal honesty," bravery, transparency, etc which have supplanted some other virtues, such as temperance, chastity, whatever. When you think of it this way, it's a slippery slope down to James Frey et al.

A good book is a good book, though.

qiihoskeh said...

My Life Lacks a Theme -- an Awkward Autobiography by Nancy Kress

You could write it but leave it unpublished, for future ages to find and treasure. I can imagine the reviews: "... a brutally honest ... yet chaste ... illuminates life in primitive times ..." -- Bk'Uuhdy=Smythe Zorhtb.


抽菸 said...


Lou said...

I dunno, Nancy. I'm curious about many aspects of your life, such as your marriage to Charles, but would never actually ASK you because I suspect it would come across as nosy and unwanted.

I'm convinced that the story...of your struggles, the realization of his illness, the downhill slide as he got worse, the reconciliation to the end...that this would be not only useful to others in a similar circumstance, but would provide some insight into the you that you've become.

I only know the you that you've chosen to show me. I'm always curious as to the backstory.

And, with your writing skills, you'd do a masterful job. *I* would read your memoirs.


Rebecca Flys said...

Memoirs leave me feeling as though I'm looking through someone's medicine cabinet while using the bathroom during a dinner party.

Just a tad uncomfortable, and a bit curious as to why they didn't or did leave the more elicit items in the cabinet...

I've just found your blog. This is not long after I just missed your last class at WAB.

The weather is positively bone-chilling out here on Keuka Lake, and the ice is growling. I'm certain Rochester is just as chilly. Say hello to Mount Rainier for me.

Rebecca Flynn

bluesman miike Lindner said...

What's the mystery? We remember what we want to, and write about what makes us look good.

We'll never read, for example.

"Lindner! Your advice?"
"Let's blitzkrieg the Soviets. Stalin is such a bore at parties, once he get's his load on. And you know what, Adolph? Let's declare war on America too."

John Cowan said...

What this shows is that memoirs are literature, not works of history, and we judge them as literature. In life, we don't call people "honest" unless what they say agrees with the truth, whereas "honesty" in literature, like "truth" in drama, has to do with subject-matter. We call a novel "honest" when it discusses unpleasant subjects unsentimentally, and likewise with a memoir. The truth (in the ordinary, non-literary sense) of the statements in the memoir has nothing to do with it.

Heteromeles said...

I still grin whenever I see a woman reading Eat Pray Love. Reason? I met my wife on a (well-advertised dating site). On their profiles, they ask you to list what book you are currently reading. I went through over 1,000 profiles before I found my wife-to-be. Of those, hundreds (it seemed like 500, but that's probably faulty memory) listed Eat Pray Love as the book they were reading. Most of these EPL-positive women were blondes (some natural), in their late 30's, generally divorced with two children, typically in the real estate/financial business, typically into yoga and/or running and going out to trendy restaurants.

Many gave the strong impression that they were listing Eat, Pray, Love because they'd heard of it, rather than because they'd read it. One was reading "Eat Love Prey, which was an enlightening Freudian slip.

At first, I tried contacting some of these Stepford women. None responded, because I wasn't Their Kind. After a while, I took to ignoring them by the hundreds.

Now, I hate to stereotype the readers of a book. And I hope that EPL is a good book. But, you know, it still makes me grin whenever I see someone reading it, just because of that experience.