What If?

From the cover of Jerry McGill’s self-published memoir, Dear Marcus: Speaking to the Man Who Shot Me

It is hard not to be impressed with Fran Lebowitz’s comedically acerbic dismissal of memoirs: when asked in the Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking whether she would ever pen one, she quickly replied that if your life were all that interesting, someone else would write a book about it.

Despite having some sympathy with this idea, or with caustic wit, or with avoiding writing, one can nonetheless assume that there are good reasons to embark on a memoir: the world and the self collide in a particular way that only you, or mostly you, can narrate; you would like a preemptive grab at controlling the discourse. For instance: Are you Winston Churchill? Are you Nixon in China? Are you Pat Nixon in China? Did you compose Nixon in China? (Its composer, John Adams, has in fact written an engaging memoir.) Are you connected to a fascinating and underexplored chapter in history in any manner whatever? Are you a professional storyteller with a beautiful prose style and some autobiography begging for reportage? Are you a trenchant thinker with incisive analytical powers? Do you have a social cause you would like to advocate strenuously? And if none of the above, are you Brigitte Bardot?

If not, wherefore the memoir? Are you helpless before your own life, and unsure of how to write the autobiographical novel that might exploit or explore or redream it into art? Do you have a case of what the literary critic Michael Wood has called “catastrophe envy”? Have you drunk the Reality Hunger Kool-Aid of David Shields’s current “anti-novel jihad” and joined him in chiding the limping dog of fiction as if it were an unfortunate habit of lying, an omnivorous pornography of the real, instead of the struggling but majestic thing that it is? Are you coming into the house of narrative through the back door because the back door is where the money is? Are you prone to what a recent article by Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times Book Review suggested might be the “oversharing” of inconsequential you? “Unremarkable lives” should go “unremarked upon, the way God intended,” Genzliger wrote, in what reads like a reversal of the final lines of Middlemarch—George Eliot on a perversely moody or perhaps drink-addled day.

That many young people are already writing their memoirs is no longer a funny thing to say but an actual cultural condition. Book buyers have nudged publishers in this direction: we love to read memoirs. Why shouldn’t we? At a dinner party is not the fiction, which consists predominantly and unfortunately of abbreviated film plots, protracted jokes, and urban myths, less mesmerizing than the real-life tales? It would be heartless not to be interested in memoirs. People are telling us their personal stories and speaking to us of their private lives and even…

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