An article called “The Problem With Memoirs” came out in the New York Times back in January. Neil Genzlinger begins the piece by saying: “A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.”
Genzlinger goes on to talk about how, back in the good old days, only famous, remarkable, or accomplished people wrote memoirs. However, as a result of our age of “oversharing,” everyone in the world now feels comfortable writing memoirs about their lives. And these memoirs are, in his opinion, a waste of paper.
Genzlinger feels that this new sense of empowerment, this belief that everyone has a right to tell their story no matter who they are, is a terrible thing. Only famous people have a right to tell their stories. We want to read about Snooki’s drunken Jersey Shore adventures. We don’t want to read honest and compelling memoirs written by regular, everyday people who have overcome things like traumatic childhoods, abusive relationships, cancer, or chronic mental illness. Genzlinger thinks that these experiences are commonplace, unremarkable, and have already been written about to death by people who are either celebrities or remarkably gifted writers.
I would like to argue that memoir is not, as Genzlinger so eloquently puts it, a “bloated genre.” Considering how many people there are in this world, memoir is actually a painfully emaciated genre. I also don’t believe that memoir could possibly be considered a more bloated genre than fiction given the hundreds of thousands of novels in existence. Why should memoir be a smaller, more exclusive genre than fiction? Why should we get a say in who has the right to publish a memoir when we allow anybody to publish a novel without question?
What exactly is the difference between someone writing a book based on their life versus a book based on an idea, a character, or a fictional world? Why is it acceptable to have millions of novels but only a finite amount of memoirs when both fiction and memoir confront the same issues and universal human experiences? And how exactly does the existence of “bad” or poorly written memoirs take away from the genre as a whole?
I’d like to take a moment to point out that no one is writing articles attacking the credibility of fiction as a genre even though, at this very moment, there are a million people out there cranking out terrible, unpublishable novels. I would also like to point out the fact that just because something has been written about already does not mean that someone else writing about the same thing has nothing new, interesting, or unique to say.
The thing I find most troubling about this article is the belief that, unless you are famous or otherwise remarkable in some way, you shouldn’t talk about your life. You should just “shut up” and be quiet. Your life has no merit as a story, and your story couldn’t possibly make a meaningful impact on another human being reading about it. I feel sorry for people who think about memoir this way because they are completely missing the point of memoir as a powerful form of art and self-expression.
Writing a memoir is a way to connect, to share your life with others, to find your place within the larger human experience. It is just as valid and selfless a form of artistic expression as fiction writing. Writing a story based on your life is not a selfish or self-centered act. If anything, it is an incredibly courageous and selfless act to give yourself to the world, to share your life with others to bring them comfort. And it takes a lot of strength to ignore the people who live to shut you down and shut you up because they don’t want you to have a voice in this world.
There is no art to shutting up. When you shut up, there is no art.