Critique the critique


The great wack-a-doo in the memoir world over the weekend had to do with this article in the New York Times Book Review section.

Neil Genzlinger is over his head in memoirs, believes we’re all over our heads in memoirs and, frankly, we don’t need to be. We all think our stories are too important to go not written, but the stories aren’t worth the recycled paper stock they’re printed on.

A quick lick of Genslinger’s advice:

1.That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.
2. No one wants to relive your misery.
3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the people already on it.
4. If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it.

Since I’m prone to taking things personally, I pounced on the article ready to rumble. Then, I agreed. Then, I thought about my story.

I had a childhood, lived through some misery and still feel compelled to write about it. Genslinger isn’t going to stop me. Neither is my family. The only one qualified to stop me is me–I received special accreditation from the Stopping-of-me School at the University of Stoppage–and I give myself the go-ahead.

I find two things interesting in the article. The first being that Genslinger complains of a glut of memoir written by any old person with a story. Okay, I see, the genre has taken off in recent years, but isn’t every genre pretty much fit to bursting? I don’t know, I’m new in these parts. Just seems to me there’s a ton of speculative fiction, romance, nonfiction, historical fiction, poetry, young adult fiction, mystery, what I ate for dinner with whom and how I cooked it.

There are a lot of writers.

Writing.

The second point of interest is this: There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.

“Being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.” This is what Genslinger wants: brilliance.

So do I.

I don’t see the article as being the snobby, dodgy, shut-your-pie-hole critique it may have been served up as. I think it’s a call to brilliance.

We have to be extraordinary.

Advertisements

About E. Victoria Flynn

E. Victoria Flynn is a mother and a writer living in Southern Wisconsin. Published in a variety of venues, Victoria is currently writing the first in a series of three fantasy novels based on Cornish folklore. When not taking part in a shrieking dance party or engrossed in her own little fictions, Victoria is keen on art, the natural world and people unafraid to explore their own brilliance.
This entry was posted in memoir writing and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Critique the critique

  1. Krista says:

    “I don’t see the article as being the snobby, dodgy, shut-your-pie-hole critique it may have been served up as. I think it’s a call to brilliance.

    We have to be extraordinary.”

    I think you’re right.

  2. pennyjars says:

    Thanks for peeking in, Krista!

  3. Beth Hoffman says:

    “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.”

    I wish that time would come round again!

    Really enjoyed this post, thanks.

  4. 2kop says:

    This is what Betsy Lerner had to say on the subject. My response is about 50 down in the comments.

    You are a more generous soul than I, as I thought brilliance was the call to all writers — to write our stories as brilliantly as we can. BTW, I also attended Stoppage U, but have moved on to graduate school at You-Don’t-Have-As-Much-Time-As-You-Think-You-Do State, known around these parts as GOYAW (Get of Your Ass and Write). Here I learned that if we let some article stop us from writing, then we really weren’t ready to write anyway.

    You are. You know you are.

    • pennyjars says:

      Susan,

      Thanks for directing me to that post. I’ve read quite a few by now. Can you feel the thrumming reverberation of Genslinger’s sting?

      Brilliance may be the call to all writers, but maybe some are published prematurely. Guess I don’t have to worry there. 😉

  5. Linda Gartz says:

    Nothing is more boring than a self-indulgent “memoir,” whining, preening, boasting. But one doesn’t have to have done something brilliant to write a memoir. One has to find the spark universality & humanity that others can identify with on some level. (This speaks to Genslinger’s quote: “Being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment.”

    To quote from “The Florist’s Daughter” by Patricia Hampl, which I just happen to be reading right now: “These apparently ordinary people in our ordinary town, living faultlessly ordinary lives and believing themselves to be ordinary, why do I persist in thinking — knowing — they weren’t ordinary at all?” and “Nothing is harder to grasp than a relentlessly modest life.” She goes on to write movingly (if a little convolutedly) of her family. All our families have stories that if well told, will resonate and move others. The trick is in the telling — to make the ordinary extraordinary. And that’s a real trick, as I’m finding out.

  6. Memoirs can be awesome, keep it interesting and being extraordinary is always a good call to action. As we say on the Bench DOIT! (to translate, that’s just “do it” but combined in CAPS it really makes you DOIT!)

  7. kario says:

    Good for you, turning this around into a call for brilliance. I think you’re absolutely right. This can be applied to any genre of writing, any musician, anyone at all. Basically, it boils down to this: if you’re going to do a job, do it well and make it compelling.

  8. Great discussion here. I think you’re right that all markets are saturated, and there IS a lot of shoddy writing out there. But, a call to brilliance? Yes! May the brilliant step forward and be published. Well said~

  9. Pingback: Memoir Darts And Regurgitation « virtualDavis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s