NEW YORK CITY --
When The New York Times Magazine's special issue on "The Age of the
Literary Memoir" began landing with a muffled thwack on doorsteps a few
months ago, you could almost hear a collective groan passing over
Manhattan. This sound was in part the anguished keening of writers whose
work had been excluded, but primarily it was the distracted muttering of
those chagrined to see the Times celebrating a narcissistic trend
that might better be labeled The Age of Premature Ejaculation --
an age in which publishers are rushing to pry easily promotable,
warts-and-all "memoirs" from the hands of writers too young to have
actually lived all that much.
For every volatile and striking autobiography (Mary Karr's "The Liar's
Club"), and even for every moderately engaging one (Carolyn Knapp's
"Drinking: A Love Story"), there have been dozens of underripe and
overrated memoirs by young writers without terribly much to say. Thus the
multiple, thin recountings of growing up in the 'burbs (David Beers' "Blue
Sky Dream"), or of having been a little too promiscuous, or of minor
scrapes with law enforcement (Peter Alson's "Confessions of an Ivy League
Bookie"). Why the sudden overload? Maybe it's that, as the Times put it,
"Fiction isn't delivering the news -- memoir is." But very likely it's also
that, as one literary agent told a
Newsday reporter recently, "a (memoirist) can go on 'Oprah' or be
interviewed about his or her story. It's easier to promote books when
there's a person involved ... it's part of the cult of personality."
Thursday night at The New School in Greenwich Village, James Atlas -- the
bow-tied, chipmunk-like Times editor who cobbled together the "Age of the
Literary Memoir" issue -- gathered a group of autobiographically-inclined
writers to talk about what panelist Susan Cheever called the impulse
to "glorify the almighty me." Among the others persuaded to attend (and to
jostle for the too-few on-stage microphones) were Joyce Carol Oates, the
critic Luc Sante, and Phyllis Rose, the author most notably of "Parallel
Lives: Five Victorian Marriages." While demonstrating ample dismay
at the trend toward the whipper-snapper autobiography, the panel seemed
on demonstrating that the young have no monopoly on rambling
This was profoundly evident in the readings from these writers'
works-in-progress. The charming and regal Phyllis Rose intoned from her
not-quite-as-charming (and alarmingly titled) "The Year of Reading Proust"
-- a book that seems to be largely about the dinner parties Rose has ruined
with incessant anecdotes from the sensualistic French writer. Joyce Carol
Oates, the one talented novelist in attendance,
provided a stream of dithering non-sequiturs about the rural schoolhouse
she attended in upstate New York. Oates also lectured as if she'd taken a
page from the Al Gore School of Rhetorical Condescension. "Anybody remember
spelling bees?" she asked at one point. Upon mentioning the word
outhouses, Oates paused to clarify that these were "outdoor
bathrooms." Everyone nodded.
Luc Sante -- goateed and balding; he has Trotsky's nostril-flaring
intensity -- fared better with an excerpt from his forthcoming "The Factory
of Facts," a memoir about growing up in America after having been raised to
speak French. Sante and his lower middle-class family pined for "real
bread, real cheese, real beer," and always longed to return home. For
Sante, French will always be the language of the soul, while English is the
more aggressive "language of the world."
The freshest slice of experience came from Susan Cheever, who donned
her reading glasses to recall life in a family where "all the martinis in
the world were not enough to blot out the pain." (Gin-soaked olives,
Cheever said, were "my first childhood treat.") She also recalled -- with
more rueful humor than bitterness -- her three failed marriages, her
crushes on preppy boys with plummy accents, and how Ralph Ellison helped
her convince her father to let her, as a young woman, spend time alone with
Cheever sparkled, too, in the (very brief) Q&A that followed the
readings. Trying to explain the glut of tell-all memoirs, she noted that
"we live at a level of intimacy that wasn't imagined even 15 years ago."
Cheever recalled that when Saul Bellow's novel "The Dean's December" was
first published in 1982, "people were horrified to think it might be about
Princeton -- that this great work of fiction might somehow be reducible to
gossip. That wasn't done at our house. Fiction was fiction with a capital
The talk about "The Dean's December" seemed to prod awake James Atlas,
who has been (famously) at work on a biography of Bellow since he was in
short pants. "Now this is getting interesting," Atlas enthused.
Oates was the only voice on the panel who felt that writers are being
pushed to publish their memoirs at too early an age. "We can't all be Anne
Frank," Oates said. "We need to have lived, to have had profound
adventures. How many of these memoirs will survive?" Rose disagreed,
positing that it's the art that matters and that "one doesn't need to have
had a terrible childhood" or some other awful experience to write a strong
book. This issue, like most of the others, evaporated quickly. The evening
ended so abruptly that the elderly women sitting behind me speculated that
the panelists were scrambling to make their 10 p.m. dinner reservations.
"I'm hungry, too," one of these women said. She was clutching a copy
of Oates' new novel, "We Were the Mulvaneys." She quickly added, in a
whisper: "Where do you think Joyce is going to have dinner?"