Autobiography/memoir is the most self-indulgent form of writing. It’s so self-indulgent that, if you met someone who crapped on about themselves that much in conversation, you probably wouldn’t like them very much. You’d probably tell them to go screw themselves, because that’s clearly what they’d prefer to be doing with their time.
And yet, most good memoirs are good because we end up warming to the author. Whether they’re famous or just really want to tell you about the weird shit they had to endure whilst growing up, a good memoirist must be endearing to the reader – else they’ll surely have an epic literary fail on their hands.
Just Like Old Friends
Reading a good memoir should be like making a new friend. Although it’s obviously one-sided – chances are the author hasn’t met you, and probably never will – reading about someone’s life and times should give you the same kind of warm, fuzzy feeling you get when a friend confides in you. You know, “Gee, I feel so special I was the person you chose to tell about your secret fetish for double denim. I’m definitely coming to your birthday party.” That kind of thing.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids did this. I found myself thinking about her randomly whilst walking down the street, as if she were an old friend and I might give her a call later so we could listen to Lou Reed and talk about boys over a bottle of wine. (I think there was also a lot of denim. Leather, too.) When Patti was heartbroken, so was I. When she was giddy with wonderment, and eventually success, I was awed, proud, and felt like the world was doing all the right things: fortune was shining its golden light upon me.
A good memoir creates empathy. Patti made me fall in love with her – and, along with her, Robert.
Of course, the opposite can also happen whilst tackling a memoir, and you find, rather than having imagined conversations with your new BFF for a week or two, you’ve instead had to put up with a slightly unpleasant person nattering away in your head and perhaps spoiling your lunch breaks.
Hate the book, or the writer?
If for whatever reason you don’t warm to the author, how then do you give the book a fair trial? Are your views unfavourable to the work because it’s simply bad, or because you don’t think you’d be particularly fast friends with its author if you happened to meet them during, say, year eleven at Sandringham College?
Yet you could argue that if an author fails to make you like them, the work fails too, because a memoir that doesn’t induce empathy in its reader has probably missed the point. Autobiographers pull back the curtains on their lives and invite others to watch; the compulsion to write about themselves is born from desires that just about every human being harbours: to be known and understood, acknowledged and appreciated. But if the reader doesn’t much like the author, why should they fulfill those desires and read on?
A good memoirist doesn’t have to be a good person. But the writing must compel. Any ordinary Dick or Jane’s suburban existence can be made into something awesome if the writing’s up to the job. And if the writing doesn’t compel, the life has got to. Think Chopper Read. If you check out his website, you’ll see he’s no stickler for grammar (I’d better be careful what I say – he’s no longer doing time at “Bluestone College”). But the popularity of his books indicates that reading first-hand about the life of a killer strikes a fascination, if morbid, in many people. (Cue the current controversy over David Hicks’ biography being nominated for the Queensland Premier’s Literary Awards.)
It’s Not Me, It’s You
Failing all of the above, if your writing doesn’t make the reader love your pants or the life they walked in, try writing about something else instead, and just chuck in a few personal bits here and there. Kind of like a watered-down version of yourself (let’s face it, it’s less risky).
How To Be a Woman is the second book from British TV presenter Caitlin Moran (she wrote a novel when she was still a teenager, wowsers), whom I’d never heard of. I saw the cover of her book and thought she looked a like a cross between a girl I used to know from a place called Bogan Gap and somebody who belongs in the Addams family, and decided this was reason enough to buy it.
While How To Be a Woman is memoirish in that it’s full of (enjoyable) personal anecdotes, it’s about something other than just Moran – Feminism. It’s also riotously funny. Rolling around in fits of laughter is not the usual response to the F-word, so good on her and her furry minge, I say.
(And actually, now that I think about it, Patti’s book was never meant to be about her, but about Robert.)
Another funny lady with a funny memoir is local comedienne Denise Scott. All That Happened at Number 26 is mostly about her family, as opposed to herself. (Although, if you want to get technical, she’s part of the family.) The overall effect is that Scott comes across as the generous, loving, motherly type she most probably is, more concerned with those around her than with herself, her career and whatever else tends to be up the top of one’s list of preoccupations.
Oh, and I love a woman who can laugh at herself. More please.
So, I suppose the moral of the story is, if you’re not enjoying a memoir, put it down and pick up something else, and save yourself the personal anguish. There are too many good books out there to waste your time enduring ones that strike the wrong chord, and probably enough fraught relationships in your own life already. But if you must persevere, because you are neurotic about finishing books, say, or because you are tasked with reviewing it, then best of luck to you and your skills in the New Friends department.