My so-called life

A historical look at memoirs and their growing popularity

Ben Yagoda observes that scandals over lies in memoirs, such as those of activist Rigoberta Menchu (left) and James Frey, are not a modern invention but have cropped up periodically through the years. Ben Yagoda observes that scandals over lies in memoirs, such as those of activist Rigoberta Menchu (left) and James Frey, are not a modern invention but have cropped up periodically through the years. (Jaime Puebla/ Associated Press/ File)
By Daniel Akst
Globe Correspondent / November 29, 2009

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Once upon a time, before the Age of Oprah, writers who had lived through something terrible would turn their experiences into fiction.

Nowadays, of course, lucky scribes who’ve endured a Dickensian upbringing, a debauched sex life, or prolonged marination in vodka and methamphetamines will turn their hand to memoir, a genre so lucrative that today bookstores are bursting with these lurid personal chronicles. Experiences so humiliating that people once hid them are now so remunerative that some writers make them up, with the result that such literary frauds seem nearly common.

The problem with this before-and-after portrait of changing literary times is that it’s way too simple, as Ben Yagoda demonstrates in his learned and witty new book, “Memoir: a History.’’ Yes, we are beset by a plague of autobiographies, including a good many purportedly by dogs. And yes, novels like “A Fan’s Notes’’ and “The Bell Jar’’ would likely be published as nonfiction today, albeit without disturbing their relationship to the facts. But go back far enough and you’ll discover that things haven’t changed as much as you might think.

Memoirs are nearly as old as writing, and sensational disclosures have been a feature of them since at least the fifth century, when St. Augustine let it all hang out in his pathbreaking “Confessions,’’ which recounts his famous pragmatic plea to God: “Grant me chastity and continence, but not yet.’’ Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his own “Confessions,’’ reported in the 18th century on his embarrassing lifelong desire to be spanked by women.

Confessions of sin were a standard feature in spiritual autobiographies, which typically ended with redemption in Christ. But by the first half of the 19th century there were plenty of memoirs by secular rogues as well. One study of bibliographies for the period found that while the leading occupational category for American memoirists was clergy/religious; the second was criminal/deviant, accounting for a quarter of published autobiographies.

As the pace of memoirs picked up in the 19th and 20th centuries, so did complaints that publishers were producing too many of them. Nor was trauma or seniority any longer a prerequisite.

Scandals over bogus memoirs are nothing new either. Just as controversy erupted when it was shown that some of the horrors described by Guatemalan activist Rigoberta Menchu in her 1983 memoir apparently didn’t happen, so too did controversy arise before the Civil War when the occasional slave-memoir turned out to have been cooked up by abolitionists.

It’s never been wise to expect too much truthfulness from memoirs, for memory itself is faulty, as study after study has demonstrated, and the will is weak in the face of the many good reasons to embroider the facts - or fabricate them entirely.

Yet Yagoda is as eloquent on behalf of the defense as he is for the prosecution. “The boom has spawned hundreds - if not thousands - of worthwhile books,’’ he writes. “Many have shed light on an impressive variety of social, ethnic, medical, psychological, regional and personal situations. And many are just plain good. The memoir boom, for all its sins, has been a net plus for the cause of writing.’’

Why have memoirs become perhaps the dominant literary form of our times? Yagoda cites several factors, including “more narcissism overall, less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood, and a therapeutic culture.’’ Psychoanalysis, Alcoholics Anonymous (a demotic form of talk therapy that relies on public testimony), and the rise of programs such as Oprah Winfrey’s all cultivated receptivity toward the genre.

And perhaps TV and movies have given us a greater taste for the literal. “Fiction has become a bit like painting in the age of photography,’’ Yagoda observes, “a novelty item that has its place in the Booker Prize/Whitney Museum high culture and in the genre-fiction/black-velvet-Elvis low but is oddly absent in the middle range. Certainly when it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is done.’’

He’s right; ours is no longer the age of high-impact novels like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin’’ or “The Jungle.’’ “Today,’’ Yagoda says, “for a didactic text to be taken seriously or even attended to, it requires a certification of documentary truth.’’ To the extent memoirs fall short in this respect, paradoxically enough, it only places them more perfectly in step with the times, for faith in objective truth has been declining in Western culture for something like 100 years.

Yagoda tells us all this and more in a delightful book full of scholarship yet free of the hideous jargon and leaden prose that readers have learned to dread in such works.

If I have a bone to pick with Yagoda, it’s that his view of memoir veracity may be a little too nuanced. I am perhaps the victim of a youth misspent in the newspaper business, but it seems to me there is something to be said for the facts of a thing - and that we’re right to draw a line between mere faulty memory and the intentional material falsifications properly known as “lies.’’ Ignoring this distinction puts us on a slope so slippery it’s more of a luge run, at the bottom of which is the dangerous notion that what really happened doesn’t matter at all - as long as it makes a good story.

Daniel Akst is a writer in New York’s Hudson Valley.

MEMOIR: A History
By Ben Yagoda
Riverhead, 291 pp., $25.95

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