Feb 08

Should there be rules about who writes memoirs? A New York Times Book Review writer thinks so. Why do we find classics so intimidating? And 2 books we can’t wait for you to read.

Does the world need more memoirs?

Segment one of this episode was inspired by The Problem With Memoirs,  a recent article in The New York Times Book Review by Neil Genzlinger.  Genzlinger bemoans the large number of memoirs published today, and sets out some “rules” about who should and should not share their story with the world. We’d love to know what you think: are there too many memoirs by people with nothing interesting to say?

When Genzlinger’s piece was published, it was the topic of much discussion on Twitter. As part of that discussion, the hashtag #memoirsworthreading took off as people listed their favorite memoirs. Sadly, twitter does not seem to have archived those tweets as I had hoped.

Books mentioned during this segment:

Classically Intimidated (09:10)

The War and Peace Read-along started on February 1st, but you can jump in and join us any time. Join us at the official read-along wiki and/or on our Facebook group (more formal discussion is happening on the wiki, less formal on the Facebook group). People are really enjoying it, and are surprised to find that War and Peace isn’t the imposing tome that they thought it would be. Michael found the same thing when he read Moby Dick, which he loved. Should these books be taught to us when we are teenagers, or will we enjoy them more? Do you have a classic that you view as a “looming pile of dread?”

Two books we can’t wait for you to read (18:28)

Mr. ChartwellI Think I Love You

Michael talks about Mr. Chartwell by Rebecca Hunt, a novel featuring a giant talking dog, Winston Churchill, and a woman suffering from depression. Ann’s recommendation is I Think I Love You by Allison Pearson, a delicious novel about two 13 year-old girls in 1970s Wales that are obsessed with David Cassidy and how one of those girls grows up to find her adult life intersecting with her teenage crush.

[image: jcoterhals via flickr]

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  • I enjoy reading memiors, although I haven’t read too many. I don’t particularly care for the idea that some…er…Literary Person (for lack of a better title since, I admit, I am not familiar with Neil Genzlinger) has established guidelines about who can write a memoir and what they can write memoirs about. I agree that there is an audience for virtually any memoir. I also have to wonder if suggested guidelines like Genzlinger’s could deter an individual from writing what could possibly be a most amazing memoir just because they had parents and a childhood or they don’t have the right credentials.

    As for the classics…I kind of have a phobia of classics. I own several classics (in paperback and in e-book form), but I haven’t actually picked one up and read it all the way through. I’d been completely turned off to the idea of reading classics. I think it has a lot to do with being forced to read them in high school. I was in AP prep classes in 9th grade, so while the rest of the 9th grade population was reading Lord of the Flies, I was required to read Beowulf, Paradise Lost, The Republic, and handful of ancient Greek plays. While I did enjoy Antigone, I don’t recall actually making it through any of the other required reads. Who makes a 14 year old read those books– especially the Republic? While I know it’s not impossible for a 14 year old to enjoy those works at that age, I kind of feel that population is miniscule. I hardly understood what was going on. OH! And to make matters worse, I was forced to write a report about The Republic and democracy. Like…what made the teacher think that was a good idea? I think I got a D on that paper.
    Now, at 22, I kind of have the desire to tackle a classic book or two. I feel now I have the patience to get through what I perceive to be a difficult book. And, I feel that I’ll definitely be able to appreciate the books now that I’m older (and not being required to read something also helps). Some of the dread to read classics is still there, But, I have dug up all the classics that I own. They’re within reach, and they’re ready for me to read them.

    Phew! That was a long comment. Oops!

    • We like long comments! And I had a tough time with Plato’s Republic in my freshman year of college, I can’t imagine having to read it in 9th grade!

  • About the memoir kerfuffle: One of my favorites is Little Heathens: Hard Times and High Spirits on an Iowa Farm During the Great Depression by Mildred Armstrong Kalish. It’s a book about an ordinary life in which nothing shocking or earth shattering happened, but it is such a treasure for all kinds of reasons..mostly because of all the wonderful details about that time period and because of the fiesty, funny, self-effacing voice. According to Mr. Genzlinger’s criteria, it should never have been written.

  • Patricia Snyder

    I have to start off by saying that Genzlinger does not use the word “rules”; he uses “guidelines”, big difference. When I read his article, I thought he was probably caught up in the fact that he had to review four memoirs in a short space of time and started to gag on the amateurish writing and subject-matter except for Johanna Adorjan’s “An Exclusive Love”. I agree with his guidelines because I don’t want to waste my time reading insignificant material. I want to learn something new, see the world through someone else’s viewpoint in a way that has not been presented before. I always recommend Katherine Graham’s “A Personal History” as an example of memoir at its best. “Paula” by Isabel Allende is another example of memoir at the highest level.

    I don’t believe in censorship in writing and publishing. Anyone can write and publish whatever he or she wants in our democracy, but we do need someone to say, “That’s just a pile of poppycock.” No one should be upset by Genzlinger article.

    By the way, Bristol Palin is about to publish a memoir. I wonder what Genzlinger will have to say about that book; that is if he reads it.

  • Patricia Snyder

    I have to start off by saying that Genzlinger does not use the word “rules”; he uses “guidelines”, big difference. When I read his article, I thought he was probably caught up in the fact that he had to review four memoirs in a short space of time and started to gag on the amateurish writing and subject-matter except for Johanna Adorjan’s “An Exclusive Love”. I agree with his guidelines because I don’t want to waste my time reading insignificant material. I want to learn something new, see the world through someone else’s viewpoint in a way that has not been presented before. I always recommend Katherine Graham’s “A Personal History” as an example of memoir at its best. “Paula” by Isabel Allende is another example of memoir at the highest level.

    I don’t believe in censorship in writing and publishing. Anyone can write and publish whatever he or she wants in our democracy, but we do need someone to say, “That’s just a pile of poppycock.” No one should be upset by Genzlinger article.

    By the way, Bristol Palin is about to publish a memoir. I wonder what Genzlinger will have to say about that book; that is if he reads it.

  • Scott

    what is the big deal? If someone to write something, let them. you don’t have to read it. some of these argument could be applied to TV and movies. but… if you don’t like it, turn it off.

  • Rebekah

    The thing about books (that you aren’t being paid to read and review) you don’t like, is that you can stop reading. If you go to the bookstore and find a memoir you think may be interesting, then read the first few pages. If you don’t like the writing, don’t buy the book. That being said, I do like memoirs. Even the boring ones. There is something about everyone’s life that’s worth listening to; the thing that makes them interesting. That being said I especially like: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight by Alexandra Fuller, I Am Not Myself These Days by Josh Kilmer Purcell, The Boy and the Dog Are Sleeping by Nasdijj… I could go on, for a longer time than anyone would appreciate. But I also recommend Letters and Papers from Prison by Dietrich Bonnehoffer (the greatly expanded version). Bonnehoffer was a Protestant Theologian imprisoned by the Nazi’s. I know it’s not a memoir exactly, but it’s an awesome and awesomely interesting collection of letters.

  • Kristin Escalante

    bravo!!!! Best pocast yet. I loved the more conversational tone!!

    • Thanks. It’s a hard balance to strike between conversational and “too insider”. But we try 🙂

  • Anonymous

    I have actually been asked to write some sort of memoir by teachers who are interested in my story. The problem is that I don’t remember most of it and my mom has told teachers that have wondered why I haven’t wrote anything is that I really don’t recall most of the stuff that I went through in school. I really don’t have any interest to write and if my mom wishes to write my story from her vantage point, I am fine with it, just as long as I get some money from her as a result, which apparently I may get, according to what she has told me.

    As for classics, I don’t find them intimidating. I have read a number of them and when I can get into the story, I really enjoy them. I agree with Micheal’s sentiments about classic novels in regards to teenagers. I think what people forget is that some of these book are very funny and witty. I read Emma and found it to be very funny and found myself laughing at some of the antics. One of my favourite classic novels is A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens; I read it in Grade 11 and just fell in love with the book. Same with Jane Eyre. I read it in Grade 8 and just fell in love with the story. Of course it didn’t help that it was a love story, but I also identified with Jane and how she felt as an outsider, which was how I felt, and how she longed to belong to something or someone. I have started to realize why these book are classics because they speak to the universality of the human condition, etc. and can be quite funny, depending on the book. The book that I am dreading is The Count of Monte Cristo. Then again I was intimidated by War & Peace, go figure.

  • I teach high school juniors. We start an independent reading unit soon. I Think I Love You sounds great. Is it age appropriate (it sounds like it)?

    • I *think*so, but let me take a quick scan thru the end and get back to you tonight. Thanks

      • Hi Mike,
        Saw that you asked Allison Pearson this on twitter, which is a brilliant idea! As Allison responded, there are a few sexual references, so it’s best to review it first, as you know your students better than I ever could. One scene in particular that would concern me is in the beginning of part two. I’m sorry I don’t have the actual book here so I can’t give you a page number reference. It’s a flashback that Petra has while in the church at her mother’s funeral.

        Hope this helps!

    • I *think*so, but let me take a quick scan thru the end and get back to you tonight. Thanks

    • I *think*so, but let me take a quick scan thru the end and get back to you tonight. Thanks

  • Kate G

    Enjoyed the podcast alot (actually, I really enjoy your podcast each week) and I wanted to comment on the classics. I like reading classics, more than I thought I would. I never read any in high school as the all girls Catholic High School made us read from texts without too many outside influences. Like everyone else, I had to read some in college English courses which were electives and some I liked and some I hated and some like Bleak House I never finished. I don’t think I read any for 20 years after that and have gradually resumed and must thank Oprah as I read along East of Eden by Stienbeck when she chose it. I think there are a couple of reasons why so many are intimidated by classics and first is the sheer size of some of them. You pick it up and think that you are never going to finish. Second, writing style has evolved over the last 200 or so years and some books are harder to read than others. That said, I think if you start and go with the author’s style, after a while it becomes easier to read. I just finished the 2 Dickens’ books that Oprah picked A Tale of Two Citites and Great Expectations and had one of my reading groups read them also. Everyone who finished was glad they did and got more out of them than they thought they would. Ann, you have inspired me to read War and Peace with you and your group, even though I am starting late, I should be caught up by the end of March. Michael, this brings me to something you discussed on a podcast last year, the idea that you will never be able to read all the books you want as new ones are always published and there are some older, great books that you may have missed. I am feeling this very acutely lately ( I hve one of those big number birthdays this year) and I think that I will take a tip from Ann and read a classic as well as something else at the same time. I can feed my enjoyment of the classics as well as continue with my usual reading (mostly newish, literary fiction, with occassional side trips elsewhere). Sorry this is so long, but I had a lot to say!

  • Bookworm00

    I sent an e-mail the other day as soon as I downloaded “I Think I Love You”, and now that I finally started it, I had to comment….I have been transported back in time.

    As soon as I read the paragraph about Donny Osmond and his purple hat, I felt a whooosh….and was back in my room at my parents house pouring over 16 Magazine and Tiger Beat. The Monkees were done for me at that point, and I was scouring every page for pictures and news of Paul Revere & The Raiders. My sister, on the other hand was cutting out pics of David Cassidy & Bobby Sherman. Thank goodness we had totally different taste, or there would have been some hair pullin’.

    Love this book, and for those who aren’t sure about checking it out I have one thing to say…

    C’mon Get Happy!

    Linda Wilkins

  • I love memoirs but agree that they have to be done correctly. I don’t just want to read about a lousy childhood but, yes, let them be published and the readers can decide. Two of my favorite memoirs are “Patient” by Ben Watt and “Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy.

  • I just finished listening to this episode and I had to comment. I like reading memoirs to an extent, but I agree that there are way too many out there at the moment. I don’t think that these people should be discouraged from writing their memoirs, as I think that it must be a huge release for them to finally get things down on paper – at least that’s how I feel when I write in my journal. I think though, that editors and publishers need to really think carefully about which ones they choose to take on. I haven’t read too many of the abuse memoirs because the first one I read – A Child Called It – made me very emotional whilst reading and I found it hard to finish because of this. It was an amazing book but I was a wreck whilst reading it. I’ve only read a couple since. I have, however, picked up many in bookshops and have read the back copy, only to find that they all sound very similar. I think that there are far too many people jumping on the bandwagon (with abuse memoirs at least) and this is why I feel there needs to be a stronger selection process.

    On the flip side, I LOVE memoirs by celebrities and memoirs by people that have achieved great things. I think it appears to the nosy side of my personality!!!

  • Sue Jackson

    What a great podcast! (I’ve been catching up this week) So much to talk about here…

    I love reading memoirs, and I have to disagree with the author of the NYT essay. While there is certainly a thrill from reading memoirs of unusual lives, sometimes it’s enjoyable to read memoirs of relatively normal lives precisely because you can relate to what the author is writing about. That’s the beauty and the paradox of a well-written memoir – that the author has written in such detail about his or her own very personal life that you can see parallels with your own life – universal truths about life, love, family, etc. That’s what I love about memoirs – all sorts of memoirs. So, no, I don’t think there are too many memoirs out there or that only people who have lived extraordinary lives should write them. Ordinary people (who are excellent writers) can write extraordinary memoirs.

    Some of my favorites:
    Building a Home with My Husband by Rachel Simon – Simon is very talented at observing her own life and finding universal truths (she also wrote Riding the Bus with My Sister):
    http://bookbybook.blogspot.com/2009/08/memoir-review-building-home-with-my.html

    I Sleep at Red Lights by Bruce Stockler – while his experiences raising triplets counts as extraordinary, his funny and insightful memoir is perfect for all parents.
    http://bookbybook.blogspot.com/2009/05/memoir-review-i-sleep-at-red-lights.html

    The House at Sugar Beach by Helene Cooper – an extraordinary life in an extraordinary place, Liberia.
    http://bookbybook.blogspot.com/2009/04/memoir-review-house-at-sugar-beach.html

    Three Little Words by Ashley Rhodes-Courter – an extraordinary childhood spent in foster care.
    http://bookbybook.blogspot.com/2008/02/memoir-three-little-words.html

    Oh, and Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life is one of my favorites, too, Michael! Sorry to get carried away, but I really do love memoirs! I could go on and on…

    Sue Jackson
    http://www.bookbybook.blogspot.com

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