Just Admit It, You Wrote a Memoir
It’s time to reclaim a category that has long been derided because it’s seen as feminine
In March, I attended a conversation between Sheila Heti and Chris Kraus at the Murmrr Ballroom in Brooklyn. During the Q&A, a woman writer from the audience asked the two how they think about the lines between memoir, fiction, and “autofiction,” or fictionalized autobiography — a question that the asker said she struggled with herself. Heti and Kraus were unanimous on a few points: that autofiction is a needless term, as all fiction draws on the writer’s experience, and that memoir is “repugnant.”
Listening to their responses, I was struck by the strength of their objections to “memoir.” I related — my own forthcoming book, drawn from my life, is subtitled “A Novel from Poems” rather than “A Memoir,” because I balked at the term, which felt heavy and in some ways inaccurate. But Heti and Kraus seemed to hate the term with a fervor that surprised me. I returned to a question I’ve asked myself many times before: Why are we so uncomfortable with memoir? Why does the word itself sound both sentimental and unserious? And why do women writers in particular feel so compelled to reject that label even when their narrators share their names and friends and professions?
Of course, it would be an exaggeration to say that memoir is generally hated. Really, the opposite is true. In The Limits of Autobiography, Leigh Gilmore argues that, at the turn of the millennium, memoir became “the genre”: she notes that, between the 1940s and the 1990s, the number of new autobiographies and memoirs released per year tripled; in addition, scholars joined novelists and memoirists in the writing about personal experience. Now, autobiographies from celebrities and politicians regularly top nonfiction best-seller lists, and much of the growth in book sales is attributed to nonfiction.
But that boom in memoir is accompanied by a discomfort with it — and judgment of it. Even the slipperiness between the respectable term “autobiography” and the more treacly-sounding “memoir” tells us as much.
The word “memoir” has straightforward origins — it comes from the French mémoire, memory. But Heti and Kraus’ visceral reaction to the term indicates that it has taken on a much more specific meaning. The two writers explained their distaste for the genre in similar ways: Heti said that a memoir is not symbolic (a point she reiterated in a recent interview). Kraus said that a memoir attempts to tell the story of one life, and that she is more interested in dialogue and relationships.
At other points in their conversation, they touched on a related topic: Heti said that readers often mistake her novel How Should a Person Be for self-help, and then tell her she wasn’t helpful — that she isn’t qualified to give them advice. This is another assumption about memoir: that its writers suggest they have lived exemplary lives, ones others may want to strive and imitate. (Some readers may even assume that young people cannot and should not write memoirs.) Our celebration of the lives of the rich and famous must contribute to this conception, and the current boom in self-help books, how-to guides, and inspirational literature compounds it further. This may seem to be a bit of a contradiction: memoir has negative associations with sentimentality, yet also demands of its authors the demonstration of expertise. And perhaps this very contradiction is part of what makes the term seem weighty, if not repugnant.
Objections to memoir thus paint it as a limited genre, one that tries to make sense of an individual life in a neat, straightforward way so that it can serve as an example. Listening to Heti and Kraus, it feels that memoir is pitted against writing that is “literary” (symbolic, shaped, crafted), formally experimental, and innovative. By following the path of a singular life so closely, they argue, it closes itself off to the stranger details and contradictions that make lives and literature interesting in the first place.
Indeed, recent works of nonfiction or fiction drawn from life go by many other names: we call Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts “auto-analysis,” Heidi Julavits’ The Folded Clock a “diary,” Heti’s How Should a Person Be “a novel from life.” I read lots of essay collections, and have noticed that their fragmented forms save them from the label “memoir,” too.
And of course, there is that other term “autofiction,” writing about the self that refuses the label of nonfiction altogether. Kraus said that all fiction comes from a writer’s experience; why do we need a special term for it? There’s a logic to this argument — no one would call James Joyce’s The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man autofiction, after all. While the term has been attached to many celebrated (male) writers — Sebald, Amis — it can also serve to imply that a novelist has taken the easy way out, simply changing around some details from their life instead of coming up with something truly creative and new. In the introduction to a special issue of Women and Performance (1999), Leslie Satin writes that autobiography “has been feminized.” Satin goes on: “This feminized state has perpetuated the criticism so often leveled at female writers of fiction, that their writings are, however veiled, (merely) autobiographical.” For women writers who have faced this charge, it makes sense to reject any label that implies their work is merely self-oriented — to insist that their books are not autofiction, but fiction.
The literary and the autobiographical have had a vexed history since well before the late 20th-century memoir boom. At the height of Modernism, T. S. Eliot’s “Traditional the Individual Talent” and Gertrude Stein’s The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas both demonstrated their culture’s distaste for autobiography, memoir, and “confessional” literature, albeit in different ways. Eliot argues that writing from one’s personal experience prevents one from contributing to and reshaping literary tradition. Stein’s fictional autobiography of her partner, by contrast, is a send-up of autobiography as a genre. Throughout, the fictional narrator, Toklas, shares Stein’s thoughts on autobiography:
For some time now many people, and publishers, have been asking Gertrude Stein to write her autobiography and she had always replied, not possibly. She began to tease me and say that I should write my autobiography. Just think, she would say, what a lot of money you would make. She then began to invent titles for my autobiography. My Life with the Great, Wives of Geniuses I have Sat With, My Twenty-five Years With Gertrude Stein.
Stein knows an autobiography could bring her fame and wealth, but as a literary innovator, a “genius,” it’s distasteful. However, she encourages her partner to write one: Toklas, the “wife” in their relationship, could write about her feminized perspective — her time with other wives, her time observing Stein’s genius. And so, in a send-up of the genre, Stein simply writes from Toklas’ perspective. The book was immensely popular, because of its satire against autobiography, as well as because of its real disclosures of modernist friendships and conflicts: the book includes conversations with Picasso, and criticisms of Hemingway.
By the time that Eliot and Stein rejected the personal, memoir had begun to be coded as female. Memoir flourished as a genre in the 19th century, and by the early 20th century, was mainstream. Romanticists wrote from personal experience, and John Stuart Mill and others wrote spiritual autobiographies. When Oscar Wilde was questioned about his plays while on trial for indecent behavior, the line between autobiography and fiction became a legal question, and his autobiographical De Profundis, written from prison, inflamed public interest in his relationship with Lord Alfred Douglas, and associated the genre with homsexuality (then “sexual inversion”) in the public imagination. Women writers of the period also included autobiographical elements in their novels and periodical publications. Regardless of the gender of the writers, the genre itself became negatively associated with the feminine as it became popular.
As Andreas Huyssen and others have argued, modernism constructed itself in opposition to a mass culture that it strongly coded as female. It is well-chronicled that Eliot and his contemporaries rejected the 19th century to make literature new; in After the Great Divide, Huyssen argues that modernism associated “inferior literature” with one set of terms — it is “subjective, emotional, passive,” and female” — and “genuine, authentic literature” with another — it is “objective, ironic, “in control of…aesthetic means,” and male. (It does not escape me that the history of modernism I outline here is a particular history, and a white history. I focus on it here not to exclude other modernisms, but to trace the history of a dominant cultural narrative that I think influences our definitions and associations today.)
In the early 20th century, memoir’s very popularity made it sentimental, naïve, and “easy” (to read and to write). Modernism opposed itself to those terms, and when modernist writers did write from their life experience, their work blurred the line between truth and fiction, memory and invention, enough to evade the labels “memoir” and “autobiography.”
Moving into the mid–20th century, audiences continued to crave memoir; it seemed to intersect with the literary once again with the rise of the Confessional School. It’s worth remembering, though, that even Sylvia Plath said her famous poem “Daddy” was “spoken by a girl with an Electra complex” — as in, another girl, but not herself. For years, women writers like Stein and Plath have performed confession while also denying it.
Now, a century after the initial ascent of literary modernism and on the other side of deconstruction and postmodernism, one might assume that “memoir” has taken on new valences — that the literary/innovative is no longer so opposed to the subjective or to the “popular.” That “women’s writing” has no less value than that other, adjective-free “writing.” A recent resurgence of essay collections, as well as the reception of the innovative nonfiction titles I’ve mentioned, suggests we’ve made some progress. We prize “difficulty” much less than we used to, and are more open to the idea that all selves are constructed, whether in literature or in life. But the continuing negative connotations of the term “memoir” suggests to me that we have a way to go towards dismantling the idea that self-referential work has less value because of its appeal to readers who identify as women.
First, I wonder if it might be time to reconsider memoir’s association with self-help. When an author presents her life as potentially instructive, does it have to be didactic? Heti’s new novel Motherhood seems to hold open the promise of non-didactic self-help. I don’t mean to suggest that the book is not a novel or that it should be labeled memoir. However, it’s obvious that many readers and reviewers have struggled to separate the narrator from Heti herself, and have read it as a treatise of whether or not to have a child. Indeed, I know many friends and acquaintances reading it hoping to get advice. On Instagram, Miranda July says it is:
A book for all of you who are considering having a baby, who had a baby, who didn’t have a baby, who didn’t want a baby, who don’t know what they want but the clock is ticking anyway. This topic is finally tackled as if it were the most important decision in your life. Because, um. How lucky are we that one of our foremost thinkers took this upon herself, for years, in real time, wrestling every day and living to tell.
Heti, July implies, thinks through this from her own perspective to help the reader in their own thinking — as undecided and undecidable as the question of motherhood may remain, even for Heti herself. And why shouldn’t writers acknowledge that readers want this?
Beyond literary fiction, I think about literary self-help columns including Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond’s Dear Sugar, Dorothea Lasky and Alexander Dimitrov’s Ask the Astro Poets, and Heather Havrilesky’s Ask Polly. These writers carefully read the letters and follow-up with advice that draws on their own experience as readers and writers (and, in the case of Lasky and Dimitrov, astrologers). There’s a hunger for well-wrought advice from writers, I think — and it doesn’t have to answer a question definitively. While self-help may demand a standard of perfection from the individual who doles it out, these writers’ columns (and podcasts) suggest that our standard is changing: we want advice from writers who can admit their flaws and mistakes. Often, seeing a writer think through the problem through the lens of their own experience is what’s most valuable. So why shouldn’t works of memoir and literary fiction acknowledge that readers often seek advice and help? Advice can stem from writer’s experience, as well as the gaps, contradictions, and uncertainties in that experience. I’d like to see more work of this kind — experimental self-help literature.
Second, I wonder what would happen if women and nonbinary writers with literary sensibilities embraced that “women’s genre,” memoir. After all, our lives are all shaped by the symbolic significance we inscribe to certain experiences, relationships, and objects. Our personal histories contain much more than fact: they’re also constructed of out the lies we tell ourselves, knowingly and unknowingly; by the things we distort; by our dreams and fantasies and delusions. We know that our memories contain so much more than truth; what if we let our memoirs do so, too?