Media Circus

When a panel of famous writers, including black-clad incest poster child Kathryn Harrison, gathered in New York to brood publicly over the rising tide of literary memoirs, the ensuing "debate" was about as exciting as smooching your sister.

Published April 10, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

when Congress passed the Second Amendment -- the right of people to bear arms -- it didn't anticipate the Uzi. Similarly, when Thoreau wrote in "Walden" that he demands of every writer "first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life," he probably didn't foresee a book like Kathryn Harrison's "The Kiss."

But here we are, in 1997, in the middle of what's been billed as "the memoir explosion," with critics on either side slugging away like Ali and Foreman in "When We Were Kings." James Wolcott and Jonathan Yardley have worn black trunks, pummeling Harrison's book as the logical extension of a narcissistic genre run amok; Tobias Wolfe, in white, popped in his mouthpiece and defended "The Kiss" -- and his jacket blurb for it -- in a lukewarm New York Times Op-Ed piece. (Harvard's saintly Robert Coles, saying he didn't take into account the book's possible effect on Harrison's children, has since recanted his blurb.) Everyone else seems to be standing off to the side, cheering for blood.

Or are they? One of the interesting things about Tuesday night's panel discussion called "The Memoir Explosion" at the Society for Ethical Culture on New York's Upper West Side, was how low the energy level was. The evening wasn't a sell-out, as had been predicted, and when the heavy-hitting panelists -- Frank Conroy, Kathryn Harrison, Thomas Mallon, Mona Simpson, Frank McCourt and James Atlas -- strode onto the stage, there was an uncomfortable silence. Nobody clapped. People looked around and thought to themselves: Maybe this memoir battle really is just an insider's phenomenon, the equivalent of a snowstorm raging inside a Random House editor's paperweight.

Moderator Frank Conroy, author of the classic memoir "Stop-Time," began the evening on an ambivalent note. "If you are confused [about this issue], you could not be more confused than we are," he said. "I don't think we are going to solve anything tonight," he added, before noting that he tends to agree with E.L. Doctorow's assertion that, in the end, "it's all narrative." Conroy, who is a rambling and rather unengaging speaker -- he soon proved to be an even flakier moderator -- then turned to the other panelists for opening arguments.

First up was Thomas Mallon, the novelist ("Dewey Defeats Truman") and GQ book critic who's also written a study of diaries titled "A Book of One's Own." Mallon drew some laughs with his confession that he'd had "the kind of happy childhood that is so damaging to a writer." And while the other panelists would try all evening to stake out some cozy middle ground between fiction and memoir, Mallon offered a cogent and contrarian opinion -- that novels can do things that memoirs simply cannot. "My bias is for the novel," he said. "It has a capacity that memoir doesn't. The novel can have a kind of Big Truth, while the memoir contains only individual truth." He went on to say that "character is overrated as an element in novels," and that novels are about "ultimate questions," not just the people in them. "Our novels have grown interior," he said.

Next was the woman at the eye of the storm, Kathryn Harrison, a black-clad, brooding and apparently nervous presence. (It probably didn't help her mood that photographers in the front row kept training their zoom lenses on her and squeezing off rat-a-tat rounds of camera fire.) "I would draw less of a distinction [between fiction and memoir] than Tom," Harrison said. "He is more in his novels than he says. I wrote a book that was set 300 years ago, and I was still writing about myself." The real pleasure of writing fiction, Harrison said, is "the ability to change the outcome of the story." Before concluding, she added a fillip about narcissism. "I keep going back to the original story of Narcissus, who fell in love with his own surface image," Harrison said. "The best writing, whether it is a novel or memoir, destroys that image -- the comfortable image, the beautiful image on top. It explores the dark water beneath it."

Frank McCourt, fresh from his Pulitzer Prize for "Angela's Ashes," followed Harrison with a charming and chatty -- if more or less off-topic -- monologue about his teaching days. He concluded, in his lyrical Irish brogue, by saying that he didn't really understand what the fuss was all about. "When we have nothing to do, we create problems," he said. Mona Simpson, whose novels have combined elements of memoir, pretty much agreed with McCourt. She did, however, tick off a list of great novels that she is grateful weren't written as memoirs, including "Anna Karenina," and she offered a warning to potential memoirists: "Just because something happens in life, that doesn't mean that, for a reader, it happens on the page."

The final panelist was James Atlas, the author of a famously "forthcoming" Saul Bellow biography and the man who edited the New York Times Sunday Magazine's special issue on the memoir last year. Atlas, as bow-tied and chipmunkish as ever, said he was "stunned by the rapidity with which something becomes a trend" these days. He then took a swat at some of Harrison's more vituperative critics (he mentioned Wolcott and Yardley) by dragging out a moldy old chestnut: "No child ever thought, I want to grow up to be a literary critic." Atlas concluded with the observation that "there will always be memoirs that make you regret what the teachers always told you: Write what you know."

Frank Conroy then took the microphone again and mused about how "true" a memoir actually has to be. Atlas opined that readers tend to get an "emotional jolt" at the word memoir. "They feel like they are getting the straight truth. If books that present themselves as memoirs are perceived as being made up, that jolt will disappear." This would spell, Atlas said, the end of the memoir boomlet. At this point Conroy popped back in to add, for what felt like the fifth time, that good writing is all that matters. "If Frank McCourt had had a rich, privileged happy childhood, he would have written just as good a book [as 'Angela's Ashes']," Conroy said. It was a comment that caused many in the audience to shake their heads in disagreement. (They shook their heads again when McCourt made the sorry suggestion that if only Hemingway had written a cathartic tell-all memoir, he wouldn't have blown his own head off.)

Conroy had no questions up his sleeve, and the conversation ground to a halt. Atlas -- who looked a little peeved that he hadn't been asked to moderate -- picked up the slack by posing a question to Harrison: "What can you accomplish in your nonfiction that you can't in your fiction?" It was the question the crowd had been waiting for. The cameras rat-a-tatted some more.

In case you missed "Dateline," here's Harrison: "I wrote 'The Kiss,' in many ways, as a response to my own first novel, which was held to be autobiographical," she said. "The woman in the story, Isabel, has an affair with her father. But Isabel was younger than I was at the time, she was more passive, sweeter, more of a victim. When I finished that book, I wanted to disown it. I felt I'd betrayed my own history. I'd been dishonest in a way that's been inordinately painful to me over the years." When Harrison began her fourth novel a few years ago, she says, she realized that "it wasn't any good -- because this other matter kept intruding. It ceased to be an inspiration; it became a stumbling block. So I went back to the subject that inspired my first novel with the intention of owning this story that I'd disowned before."

She paused dramatically before saying: "It wasn't a decision -- it was a helpless act."

The evening soon trailed off into an almost surreally lame series of audience questions -- many of them were on the level of "How do I find an agent?" -- which Conroy seemed unable or unwilling to cut short. And when someone finally asked whether memoirists should worry about embarrassing or humiliating family members with their books, Conroy drew groans with his chortling answer: "My mother read my memoir and died three months later!" (Harrison's response to this question: "All's fair in love and war in this case ... or maybe nothing's fair.")

A final questioner wondered whether Harrison was as proud of "The Kiss" as she is of her novels.

"Yes," Harrison said. "I think it's all right."

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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