Monday, September 28, 2009

The American Book Review... Live Nude Girl. See? More specifically, Jocelyn Bartkevicius does. The whole review is thought-provoking, but the part that seems the most provocative is when the reviewer quotes Virginia Woolf's "A Sketch of the Past":

Here I come to one of the memoir writer's greatest difficulties--one of the reasons why, though I read so many, so many are failures. They leave out the person to whom things happened. The reason is that it is so difficult to describe any human being. So they say: 'This is what happened'; but they do not say what the person was like to whom it happened. And the events mean very little unless we know first to whom they happened.

I'm a fan of Woolf, and I'm grateful to Bartkevicius for taking the time to consider my book so carefully, but I can't help but disagree a bit with Woolf's assertion. Maybe when Woolf was writing this in 1939 it was more accurate, but now that memoir in particular and creative nonfiction in general have had 70 more years to establish themselves and to go through so many transformations and iterations, it seems unnecessarily restrictive to hold a whole genre to a single task. To say that memoir is and should do only one thing (and that it can be dismissed if it does not) disregards all the things memoir can be and do. But as someone who favors writing that does more than one thing at once--memoir mixed with cultural history, poetry mixed with prose, novels mixed with verse, and so on--it's interesting to think about the opinions of those who suggest that genres should stay within certain boundaries and attempt only certain pre-established goals.

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