Actor Nicholas Hope looked disappointed when he only came second in the pitching competition at the 2002 Sydney Writers’ Festival. One of 10 contestants selected from over 800 entrants, he had an idea for an autobiographical novel about life as an immigrant. Hinging on a gag (the Hopes quit the UK for Whyalla, SA, in the ’60s – ‘Why, Allah?’), his pitch lacked an ‘overarching story structure’, yet the judges (and the audience) rated his comic performance.
Brushing the Tip of Fame was published in 2004. But, over the course of two years, the novel idea had morphed into a memoir. Saleswise, though well received, it sank without a trace; my copy cost $2, remaindered. Some time later when I asked Nick how the writing was going and whether he had a novel on the way, he expressed frustration: apparently all his efforts had brought him no closer to publishing fiction; nothing less than a second memoir could pique industry interest.
Author Kate Holden has capitalised on this cultural climate, following her first book, a junkie–whore memoir, In My Skin (2005), with a sequel in a more romantic vein. If I found her description of her addiction and Melbourne’s sex industry so repetitive and unreflective that, however nicely written, more of the same wouldn’t tempt me, I’ll admit that I distrust the whole concept of memoir. My resistance, or some of it, may stem from having read Anais Nin’s diaries (and her exquisitely lyrical fiction) in my late teens and early 20s, not realising until I read a bio that she’d pursued her extensive, free-spirited erotic exploits while safely married to a banker.
Memoir’s greatest allure lies in its promise of truth; its readers, though there are exceptions,* will forgive sins they abhor in fiction, e.g., too little plot/style/suspense or too much research/backstory/setting. As a reader attuned to truths found in fiction, I’m not so forgiving. Yet despite my longstanding scruples re memoir, I’ve read three, by chance, in the last month – a record. The first, Matthew Thompson’s travelogue-on-the-edge, My Colombian Death (2008), avoids all the abovementioned pitfalls. If it lacks a clear raison d’être (maybe a baby adds pressure to make writing pay?), then it showcases the requisite skills for crafting page-turning fiction.
While Thompson appears to be courting or at least flirting with death in his reportage – self-administered shock therapy for pre-middle-age middle-class malaise – in contrast, the younger author of Your Voice in My Head (2011), Emma Forrest, dallies with danger closer to home. She offers herself to death in an impulsive suicide attempt; and, soon enough, death touches her unbidden; her shrink, who she believes saved her life, unexpectedly dies. The events recalled in Forrest’s memoir occurred before she acquired a book deal; so, unlike Thompson, she had the luxury of reflection. This integration of experience lends her narrative depth; the psychological dimension so missing from In My Skin (the exact sort of narrative that justifies my memoir allergy, as mere time wasn’t sufficient to endow Holden with insight).
The phenomenon of youngish writers recalling their lives, or parts thereof, in a nonfiction context is a relatively new trend that seems inseparable from the cult of celebrity (in much the same sense that escalating freak weather now seems inseparable from anthropogenic ‘climate change’, to use the ubiquitous euphemism). Forrest, a journalist, novelist and screenwriter, who’d been romantically involved with film star Colin Farrell, was encouraged by her editor at Bloomsbury to write a memoir (‘your generation’s Girl, Interrupted’), and her literary brilliance alone justifies its existence. As a poster girl for recovery from manic depression, however, Forrest gets lots of mail from readers whose lives her insights have changed.
When social philosopher Gillian Rose undertook the writing of Love’s Work (1995), she didn’t have the luxury of time. The latest memoir I’ve read (and maybe the last for a while; it would be hard to rival), it’s the luminous work of a 40-something riddled with tumours, who knows she’s dying. Only a small part of the book is devoted to Rose’s bodily ordeal, an account searing in its frankness and utterly free of self-pity, e.g.: ‘Nowhere in the endless romance of world literature (my experience is, needless to say, limited) have I come across an account of living with a colostomy (p. 93).† … What having a colostomy makes you realise is that normally you bear hardly any relation to your excrement (p. 94).’ And re her death sentence: ‘[Medicine] can no more fathom my holistic and spiritual matrix than I can master its material syntax (p. 103). … From the iatrogenic materiality of medicine to the screwtape spirituality of alternative healing, I am prescribed these equally sickly remedies in a combined dosage which characterises the postmodern condition itself (p. 104).’
Some time ago now, a friend of mine who couldn’t afford US health care and in consequence thought he might be dying, embarked on a piece of life writing, hoping to leave some wisdom behind. (Since then, fed up with rejections of the mss he’s sent out, he’s published a work of fiction on Kindle.) Awareness of one’s mortality can bring on a longing for immortality, even if fame hasn’t been a lifelong preoccupation. What does the memoir epidemic (and impatience to be read, if not a commensurate hunger to read deeply) bode for the future of the human species?
* When US author Rick Moody followed three acclaimed novels with a memoir at 40, some critics put the boot in, although it won an award. Novelist–critic Dale Peck (evincing sour grapes?) kicked off a review of The Black Veil (2002) with: ‘Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.’ Weaving an account of Moody’s breakdown in his 20s with family myths of a veiled ancestor who might have inspired a Nathaniel Hawthorne story, The Black Veil digresses into lit crit quite unlike Peck’s it’s-all-about-me style, not just pushing the envelope but reinventing the memoir genre. A close reading of Peck’s famously provocative review, ‘The Moody Blues’, suggests to me that, despite such lines as ‘My gut feeling is that if you honestly do not believe that this is bad writing, then you are a part of the problem’ or ‘For me, the beginning of a Rick Moody book is a bit like having a stranger walk up and smack me in the face, and then stand there waiting to see if I am man enough to separate him from his balls’, Peck’s argument reveals a dominantly rational, indeed, masculine, sensibility offended by a more fluid – ‘imprecise’ in Peck’s words – and feminine sensibility. Peck’s review, in its analysis of mechanics, fails to convey how Moody’s works might function as wholes or convey emotion.
† Diana Atkinson’s novel Highways and Dancehalls (published, like Rose’s memoir, in 1995) tracks a stripper making a living in British Columbian mining towns. How to hide a stoma on your abdomen when you have to flash your tits and fanny? From the back-cover blurb: ‘… a disturbing, poignant portrait of the reality behind voyeurism and desire. It is a story Diana Atkinson has lived through herself…’ Narrated in first-person present, her realist fiction shits all over Holden’s elegant reminiscences.