Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Fiction vs. Memoir: Part I

It's early in the morning, when I'm at my best, most sarcastic, most energetic; right now, it's a magical time for me, just between the buzz from that first cup of coffee and the crash I usually get from the obscene amount of sugar I put in said coffee.  And I want to discuss memoir as a genre and it's place in the literary world.  I recently read an  article that claimed memoir is easier to write than fiction because the material is already there.  Allow me to examine this claim...

I am currently writing a novel, and I've written and published numerous short stories; Musical Chairs is the only widely distributed piece of nonfiction I've written.  So, there's my authorial statement: I have experience on both sides of the game.  Now for the examination:

Critics of memoir usually cite absence of plot as a primary reason for disliking the genre.  This, I agree with.  It is easy for some memoirs to fall into the trap of structureless rambling.  I found that The Art of Time in Memoir by Sven Birkerts an excellent book about how to get around this issue as a writer, but it's a tricky thing, to maintain integrity by accurately portraying life (which is often chaotic) while imposing a structure that parallels plot.  How to get around this?  Find something more adaptable to drive the narrative, a question or philosophical angle that will glue the scenes together and keep them cohesive.  But easy, this is not!

The second, and it probably should've been the first reason that memoir is criticized is because there are blurred lines between the genre of memoir and the biography.  Memoirs are often considered personal biographies, as though they are just a record-keeping of sorts, written by narcissists.  Could be, on occassion this is true.  Could be that many a ghost-written celebrity "memoir" is exactly this, and yet it will be shelved next to a literary gem, such as "This Boy's Life" or "Speak, Memory".  Unlike fiction, there are no sub-genres of memoir, and therefore they are all clustered together.  As a result, some really phenomenal works are overlooked, just based on their placement in the bookstore. 

Critics of fiction  Yeah, they exist; I hang out with them.  They say that novels are always a social, political commentary or a personal story that is veiled and gutless and therefore labeled as fiction.  Well... rationally, this can be true for many, many, many books.  In fact, due to the fact that the memoir wasn't even recognized as it's own genre until around the late 70s, early 80s (and let's be clear here, I'm not talking biography and celebrity tell-alls, I'm talking memoirs that are written with the same literary attention as novels), many memoirs were automatically categorized as fiction without a second thought.  How might this change, if we were to go back in time and categorize some of the classics a bit more accurately... Would the memoir genre have a bigger pull, a larger place in the literary circles?

Critics of fiction also say that, converse to memoir, a novel often relies too heavily on plot.  Character-driven works tend to be the most highly acclaimed (I have nothing but my own assumption of this fact to back this statement up) among the literati, and yet most fiction, especially by new authors, is plot-driven.  And how many plots are there really? So the genre is bogged down with rewrites of the same old stories again and again.  At least each person's life offers a range of experience so unique it is impossible to replicate.

So, criticism out of the way, I think I'll return to this discussion in a part two of sorts.  I'd love to know what you all think, however, and whether any of you consider yourself to be biased toward one genre or the other, and if so, why?


  1. I read a lot more fiction than nonfiction. I do enjoy reading a few memoirs but they have to be of people I'm already interested in... just weird that way, I guess.

  2. you're missing out ... there are some fantastic memoirs out there, and yet they are often disregarded if the person is not famous. if you ever want to try one out, let me know and I'll send you some personalized recommendations :)

  3. Once again, I found your latest post both interesting and highly entertaining. Not surprising really, considering your memoir 'Musical Chairs' happens to be one of my - all time - favourite books!

    What I love about (well written) memoirs, is that they are about ordinary people living extraordinary lives.

    I also enjoy fiction which is about - real people - involved in complex situations.


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