Review: Memoir: An Introduction by C. Thomas Couser Print E-mail

0538480(American Book Review, 35.2, May 13, 2014)

A book that intelligently and capaciously introduces memoir for the general reader is, like a Chicago Cubs pennant or a movie reuniting Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, long overdue. Such a flight I’ve been expecting, and I’m happy to say the bird has landed. So much about the memoir’s individuation in recent years, having gained traction as art and as therapy, C. Thomas Couser addresses. It seems there are few better qualified than he to take on the form. Since the late 1970s, Couser, American Studies professor at Hofstra University, has become a formidable authority on life-writing—with American Autobiography (1979) and Altered Egos (1989), about our national obsession for self-writing; Recovering Bodies (1997) and Signifying Bodies (2009), on the true stories of the ill and disabled; and Vulnerable Subjects (2003), about the ethical landmines authors face, writing about willing and recalcitrant intimates.

For Couser, two strains comprise memoir’s literary identity. First is historical: the personal narrative runs deep with Americans, in literary and so-called everyday writing. As a people we create ourselves anew by changing jobs, partners, homes, and callings constantly; like second acts, our stories, for more than three hundred years, reflect these journeys. Radically dissimilar styles separate the Indian captivity narrative of Mary Rowlandson (1682) from the lost family grief of Joel Peckham (2012), but both are self-transformative. Finding commonalities, Couser, like a latter-day Linnaean taxonomist, exemplifies the many subject-matter varieties of autobiography and memoir. We read about such highly plumed and now ubiquitous species as autopathography (the illness and disability tale), shtick lit (the intentional memoir), scriptotherapy (the self-healing tome), matrio- and patriography (Mom and Dad, right and wrong), and, most popular, the “nobody” memoir, or how this inauspicious “I” grew. Of course, each of these has its bestseller and its thousand and one less-sellers.

The author’s second strain, coming in his best chapter, “Memoir’s Forms,” contrasts the memoir and the novel. Fiction, Couser writes, “has been more varied, inventive, and experimental in form than the literary memoir.” (I would add, so far.) Novels create funhouses for unreliable narrators, epics of multiple omniscience, vampirish gore-fests: Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie, a sorrow-plagued soliloquy on the hopelessness of being undead and having only one menu item. Twain casts Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as a “single-experience memoir,” yet it’s doubtful that a true-life Huck could have been penned the autobiographical version with any of the artful vernacular Twain created for his wisenheimer narrator. “Fiction,” Couser writes, “can go where memoir cannot, even when—perhaps especially when—it simulates memoir.”

Thus, the novel requires impersonation, while the memoir does not. Must not. If a memoir is impersonal, solipsistic, tendentious, cloyingly self-helpful, it’s likely to be avoiding honesty. The worst of these are hoaxes. Of which we’ve had plenty. Memoirs of impersonation are super-self-serving. Couser classifies many, calling them works of “existential fraud.” He hammers away at such elegant deceivers as James Frey (who outright lies about his life), John Neihardt (who censors or leaves unaddressed Black Elk’s conversion to Christianity), and Oliver Sacks (who trades his subjects’ individuality for one of the author’s “syndromes”). Another category raises Couser’s hackles. These are memoirs about family members with a disability or an illness, with criminal or unwanted or accidental celebrity (a psychopathic uncle, a beloved writer who was a lousy father), and who because they are sick, inarticulate, imprisoned, or dead cannot defend themselves against the score-settling memoirist.

Couser wants memoirists to avoid such exigencies of intent as well as downplay techniques the novel trades in. For example, it makes no sense that a memoirist use interior monologue (a novelistic device) because the memoirist (author, character, narrator) already has self-access. Likewise with indirect discourse and omniscience. No life-writer can get inside others’ heads, unless told; no life-writer can report what others say about him, unless told. These are necessary distinctions if we are to understand the memoir’s independence from, and challenge to, fiction.

The novel’s touchstone is, Couser notes, its verisimilitude, that superfluity of scenic narrative publishers want memoirists to dazzle us with—the daily vainglory of Cheryl Strayed’s Pacific Crest Trail hike in Wild—so that a memoir reads like a novel: the redemptive tale of the “I” who falls and rises, often, by her wits alone. Reads like a novel also means sells like a novel. Just as orchestras fill seats (or used to) on the heroic repertoire of nineteenth-century symphonies, so, too, do nineteenth-century epic forms (and formulas) run up the bestseller lists. Memoirists, self-guided and agent-led, have found adoring audiences by adopting the story schemes our culture prescribes.

For the memoir writer, however, “the embrace of verisimilitude may be counterproductive. ”This is a weighty point, one that many life-writers and critics miss. (I admit my failure to fully notice it.) Scenic writing, a la fiction and film, highlights the things a memoirist only guesses at: precise recall, recollected dialogue, descriptive nuance. The desire for such exactitude a memoirist feels she must fudge, approximate, make-up: the more the author specifies the family’s table talk and the room’s furniture and the oil-slick smells in the garage of her childhood, the more readers wonder, How in the world do you remember all that? Holding the memoirist to the verisimilitude of the novelist is to root for both sides in the Super Bowl. It’s like getting stuck with one permissive parent and the other, the authoritarian: Imagine the past, no one will check, vs. If you imagine the past, you’re a liar. The novelistic memoirist, for Couser, “defies plausibility.” As such, the narratives are “hi-def memoir,” “aesthetically dishonest.”

Plausibility. An inartistic term that elicits Couser’s moral definition of the form, namely, its usefulness not as art but as truth. A truth based in life’s inaccuracies. A truth about memory-muddled experience which is not the verismo truth of the novel. Emotional truths. (James Agee, a closet memoirist who often regulated himself to the fictional ventriloquism of his age, once wrote of his contrarian literary ambitions: “I know I am making the choice most dangerous to the artist, in valuing life above art.” Thank goodness he did: we would not have Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.) The memoir exists so its authors might escape fantasy and myth, types and social science. In criticizing the novelistic memoir, Couser calls for summary over scene. Summary gives moral agency—if not urgency—to the elliptical truth memoirists seek. Writing memoir is a way of thinking critically about experience, not a way of presenting experience as verity. Couser cites an idea Ben Yagoda develops in his Memoir: A History (2009): “When it comes to recalling everyday existence, memory does not privilege discrete events over typical ones.” Instead of scene, summary and reflection, Couser says, are “apparently truer to the way memory actually works, which is to distill (and distort), rather than simply record, our pasts.”

This, again, foregrounds memoir’s play with memory, which the Harvard psychologist and memory researcher, Daniel Schacter, once described as a “temporary constellation of neuronal activity.” How apt. The memoir engages now, the remembering, more than it engages then, the remembered. It is, Couser says, “actively constructive rather than passively mimetic.” Which is to say that a memoir privileges a failed, misfiring memory (common to us all) as the means to engaged renditions of life the story-bound narrators have trouble aspiring to.

In the fine chapter, “Memoir’s Ethics,” Couser contrasts memoiristic distortions: a distorted identity is not the same as a distorted event. A memoirist who struggles to establish an identity—racial, sexual, generational—is not the same as one who fakes an identity to capitalize on a trend; nor is a life-writer, who is probative of the thorny reconstruction of events, the same as one who forgoes those thorns and emphasizes drama. The idea is that unscrupulous publishers and lazy readers demand the illusory and the histrionic, and its C.S.I.-like payoffs (justice wins, secrets out), when real autobiographers walk the tightrope between memory and miscalculation.

In the end, Couser stipulates that a memoir’s value as self-disclosure is greater than the book’s merit as an aesthetic object. (Think of Ken Burns’ emphasis on the soldier’s letters home, in a way, mini-memoirs, in The Civil War.) Though standards of narrative craftsmanship may apply, they are not primal to the life-writer’s raison d’être.

I’m reminded of the love letters my father wrote to my mother during his three-and-a-half years at sea during the Second World War. They have, he once told me, though I never read them, scant literary value; a few passages of the ocean at night might pass for poetry. But as witnessed truth, mixing his terror of being bombed and his longing for his new bride, my mother, the letters comprise his lost youth, his unwanted war. In a fit of rage, some twenty years after he had written them, my father burned every one of those letters. Apparently he wished neither his wife to recall nor my brothers and I to know the self he disclosed to her from 1942-1945. His denying us his words—and thus a gaze into his disturbed heart—forces me to write things I would rather not know are true.

The work of the writer, published and engaged, is morphing from a self-conscious, learned, literary style to one performative, shared, everyday, heard, and instant—the speaker the equivalent of the writer. What I will examine, in this series of essays, is who and what is lifting writing off the page and making it auditory and multimedial, where this out-loud movement originated, how its performative character is developing, and to what end.

Technology is transforming the writer into an author—that is, the private persona of the print-based writer is being overtaken by the public persona of the multimedia author. To be heard in the news din of our culture (internet and cable TV), writers add audio, video, and, if possible, a TV presence to their kit bags. They target niches of the public and cultivate venues where they might speak their work aloud. Nowadays, writers search for stages where their voices can first be heard so they can then link audiences to their writing.

Pushing the writer to be “out” with his work are the readers—active, immediate participants in, and sometimes co-creators of, an author’s material. Writing is expanding to include broadcasting the writer’s speaking voice or using video to enhance his text, while reading is expanding to include hearing that voice or seeing text counterpointed by images and hyperlinks. Increasingly, readers are presented with the writer’s physical being, accompanying her page-bound words with the author’s sensory actuality.

The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

Here’s an example: the book trailer for Dani Shapiro’s memoir, Devotion. It’s a classic soft sell in which we see pastoral images, hear New Age music, and feel the author’s self-presentation. Shapiro is sharing herself with us, making eye contact, projecting the persona of the thoughtful writer. (I’m not suggesting she’s faking it; on the contrary, the relational hominess is the point.) The goal, I think, is to warm her place beside the communal campfire, so we feel invited to cozy up with her book’s emotion.

With this self-offering, Shapiro hopes to involve herself in the reader’s experience in a new way. To experience her, prior to reading the text, is to smooth the way for what may be a distressing or painful endeavor. In addition, the author’s sociability is heightened. The trailer opens up her honest, revealing nature—certainly one reason the memoir form continues to draw a crowd—and a sort of Elizabeth-Gilbert friendship, we hope, ensues.

In book trailers, some writers are oilier, others softer, still others more mysterious than Shapiro. Most employ this video-audio presence to induce potential readers. A few may even do so as an antidote to the text. If an author’s style is “too” literary, academic, or experimental, making the writer likable may thwart her work’s stuffiness or difficulty so that its demand on a reader’s emotion and time becomes easier for that reader to bear.

Alongside book trailers are other spoken-text media—video book reviews, lectures and readings as podcasts, and the living author, like Dan Brown, who gets to discuss his new novel for twelve minutes on Charlie Rose. Many authors can articulately discuss their books; but those other photogenic qualities—youth, vitality, good looks—that accompany the media spotlight are often as important, in our celebrity culture, as the writing’s immersive appeal.

The personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

There’s something about the author’s actual presence that makes him authentic to readers, and more readable because of it. I think of my attraction to Sam Harris in 2005. His Book-TV lectures on atheism, featuring his distrust of Muslim fundamentalism, brought a huge audience, myself included, to his book, The End of Faith. I wanted to read him because I first heard him speak. It was the passionate evenness of his voice that led Americans, skittish about being overtly anti-religious, to access his message. His reasoning voice encouraged others to write, to speak out, and to read him.

Even texting, which seems quiet and internal, the reverse of public speaking, is closer to (or a simple recording of) written speech than it is to writing. It’s almost dialogic speech: the personal text or tweet assumes a response, seeks to converse, initiates debate or dissent. Text and tweet initiate responses, which, for the medium to work, must talk back.

Whether we engage in this dialogue or not, much of digital culture is already charged with the unique spokenness of an “I” who is telling a story, reporting, confessing. News, documentaries, video blogs, poem-image-music collaborations, podcasts, and much short fiction and nonfiction emphasize the delivery of the “I,” the voice of the speaker. Christopher Hitchens’s syntactic command with improvised speech pulled us in. We expected its provocation and wit, which his writing possessed but his speech seemed to risk far more often.

Multimedial books, for example, those created by Vook, build off of the author’s voice. The audible book is no longer an adjunct to printed texts, but rather a new beast of its own. Audible books—read by authors or actors—engage a busy public of subway riders and bicyclists who live in earbud space. Text read aloud captured the attention of the editors of The New York Times Book Review: in May the Review devoted much of one issue to critiquing audiobooks as performance, books that had already demonstrated, via prior reviews, high quality as prose.

I note the popularity of Byliner and Atavist where short and long literary works, fiction and nonfiction, are available as audio, text, and more. Each piece avails itself of a garden of technological options, as the illustration below shows.

The Atavist has many more ways than Kindle or Nook for consumers to interact with a story: read, listen, musically adorn, hyperlink, comment, resize, share, review, etc. What’s the point? In part, it’s to displace the notion that there’s only one way, reading, to imbibe a text. When text rattles this many bells and whistles, it becomes as multiple and distractible as we are. The presentation of the writing begins to resemble our various personas, which shift and adapt depending on with whom and how we’re communicating.

I have toggled back and forth from audio to text and to other modes with several Atavist pieces. I find this performative side of the literary equation, which the device offers and whose buttons I press, is doing a number on the writing side.

Though stand-alone works of long-form journalism, nonfiction, and fiction are still being published, these pieces have grown shorter than their predecessors, in the ten-thousand-word range. This shrinkage displaces some text for the spatial and sound enhancement of photos, audio, and video. Last year, at the San Diego Reader, where I’ve been a staff writer for 14 years, we got the editor’s memo telling us to beef up our stories with audio-taped interviews, photographs, and voice-over video—without upping our pay. (I note the Chicago Sun-Times has just laid off its entire photographic department; they’re asking reporters and the occasional freelance photographer to take the pictures.)

There are a couple of ways to think about these changes. Is writing becoming an adjunct to the creation of products begun in and emphasized by other media? Is writing integrating its voice with other media to accentuate and redefine the purely textual?

At random, I found online The Five Love Languages: book, e-book, audio, DVD, free study guide, and mobile app. The author, Dr. Gary Chapman, a Christian, offers the product on an all-things-to-all-consumers website. One dropdown menu says, “Interact”—blog, podcast, videos, stories, links. Why the multiplicity? My sense is that he and his production team designed a lifestyle worthy of electronic proselytizing—and the book is just one part of that sell. If you want to read about these “love languages” in-depth, here’s the book. But these other tacks are just as valid. (As of late August, 2013, Chapman’s book is number one on The New York Times “Advice, How-To and Miscellaneous” print bestseller list.)

The writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded.

This broadening of text and voice and image is indicative of the social author (who works in any media) who is encouraging social reading (by any social media available) with an audience (ears as wide as eyes) who may be interested in the author’s writing, but is probably more drawn to the multi-channels of the author’s delivery.

It’s not that the writer writes less—or less passionately. It’s that the writer must lean in to an audience whose communication devices are either already set or quickly expanding. The writing must adapt because in digital storytelling scenic writing can be videoed and sounds can be sounded. We now expect the writer/producer to include such admixtures.

I watched the recent HBO film, Behind the Candelabra, about the embattled love affair between Liberace and Scott Thorson. Such a biopic dramatizes the summarizing voice of the biographer, and a TV series, like House of Cards, challenges the singular voice of the novelist. Both are spectacularly economic narratives. In Candelabra, I marveled at the filmic use of the actual cars, costumes, homes, and jewelry of the real Liberace, which, in turn, carries the description for the screenwriter and for the audience. And does it instantly.

What has this done to the novelist’s placing of a character into a descriptive milieu, of having her interact with that milieu for the sake of verisimilitude? It’s unsettled the visual authority of the writer and driven the author inward.

I don’t mean that a writer can’t elaborate details of place and era; of course, she can. But because of the all-at-onceness of film, the capacity to move and detail objects, the author seldom feels the need for such depiction. The fact that rival forms today accomplish what narrative writers once had to do—the arduous job of scene-painting and context-creation, erecting such epic stages as Sister Carrie’s Chicago or the Joads’ trek from Oklahoma to California—is pushing them to plumb other wells of literary art: the inner world, the meditative, the analytical, the linguistic. And the collage. Each of which is scenically and sensorially magnified with video and image.

E.L. Doctorow once said that “the whole enterprise of literature is writing in silence and reading in silence.” While many writers still work this way, others use audio and video to highlight the inner, the meditative, the analytic elements to which writing is uniquely prone.

Kristen Radtke is an intriguing—and young—video essayist. In “That Kind of Daughter,” she reads a fragmentary prose poem, in three parts, while the video slowly assembles recognizable images, in herky-jerky silhouette, the whole taking six minutes. She builds her images by constant addition or subtraction—fingers one by one form a hand on which a bird appears and is held and then disassembles.

The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

Watching and listening, I experience the spoken words and the erected images in counterpoint. Words and images merge and resist merging, the ensuing structure a kind of “visual voice.” On occasion, text and video fuse and harmonize. But it’s never simple. The spoken words push the visual puzzle into known images that do and do not illustrate the text. Once those images suggest a meaning for the words, they begin to dissolve. Radtke achieves a kind of levitating effect: the video defers to and buoys the voice, the unchanging tone of which, in turn, keeps the jittery images anchored.

The writer is quickly being socialized by technology, forced out of Doctorow’s cloister and into the mediated arena where silence is not allowed. Writers are fashioning new forms from the easy availability of companionable technologies. Ten years ago, the novelist or the nonfictionist had no access to such interplay: the door to imagining collaborative possibilities for new pieces had neither been built nor unlocked. Suddenly, such teaming-up makes the writer as enhanceable as the writing is. The options for expression technology also expand the idea of authorship. The new author can choose to socialize his ideas and voice with technology as well as with new venues and new audiences.

It’s important to remember that I am not implying the abolition of print-exclusive prose, literary fiction, creative nonfiction, or poetry. What I am suggesting is that the vast sea writing has filled for five centuries is, with our eyes and ears, swelling anew, becoming multimedial and multidimensional—its practitioners, in a word, transliterate. The writer better find his oars, for his dinghy is small, and the waves are splashing over the gunnels.