The Blog


12:00 AM, Sep 9, 1996 • By CHRISTOPHER CALDWELL
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A friend who has taught college-level creative writing tells me that whenever he chastises his students for having written something outlandish, or flat, or discordant, they resort to the same disclaimer: "But that's the way it really happened!" Which leads him to explain with a sigh that for three centuries, fiction has sought to impose order on the events of life, to arrange human activity into patterns that render each part purposeful or meaningful or holy, to convert life into narrative. But today's young writers are more interested in chronicling their personal experience, asserting their personal identity, or both. This impulse is always present in the writing of fiction, but it is such a marginal aspect of what the best fiction has always done that you want to ask these neophytes why they're writing fiction at all.

The answer is that many of the most talented are not. Not any more. Indeed, young people in their twenties and thirties are writing not first novels these days; they are writing memoirs. They are literary works rather than conventional autobiographies because they deal with the mental and emotional stuff that used to be the raw material of novels, rather than with achievements in the public world, of which the authors have typically accumulated very few. That these memoirists are so young should not surprise us: After all, the culture that shaped them has so stressed sex, intoxication, and other forms of self-gratification that it's easy to feel at, say, 27 that the meaningful part of your life is over. No: What's surprising is that these books appear to be gradually replacing novels.

But reading through a dozen recently published memoirs, each of which is an effort to portray the the individuality of its author, one is struck by nothing so much as their sameness. Practically all of them feature some combination of identity politics and mental illness. They replace the moral and social concerns of literature with either the chemical concerns of medicine or the sexual casework of Krafft-Ebing or the ethnic determinism of Herbert Spencer.

They fall into two categories. "Race-and-gender books," about being black/Hispanic/Asian/gay at Harvard/Yale/Princeton/Columbia, are so numerous that one must -- and so identical that one can -- ignore them. It is the "crazy books," the confessions of those who are either mentally ill or so maladjusted that their lives take on the patterns of insanity, that concern us here.

Two limpid pools of narcissism set the contemporary boundaries of the "crazy book" -- Elizabeth Wurtzel's 1994 depression memoir Prozac Nation and Michael Ryan's 1995 sex-addict memoir Secret Life. Wurtzel's book has two tracks. The first follows our young author as she copes with depression and the medication she takes for her condition. The second track involves her precocious achievements and her sexual allure:

I wrote like crazy, at least two or three reported pieces a week, sometimes more. I wrote like my life depended on it, which it kind of did. My editors were mystified by my productivity, thought I was mainlining copy or something. . . . They nominated me for awards from the Texas Newspaper Association and the Dallas Press Club. . . . So they kind of let it slide when I started to crack. . . . When I did arrive at my office, I'd spend most of my time returning personal phone calls or telling the other reporters about the latest man in my life, an ever-changing array of cowboys, restaurateurs, musicians, and college sophomores.

In other words: What I've accomplished is mine; what I've done wrong is the lithium or the insanity talking. This suggests that the key feature of the "crazy book" is not the craziness per se. It's that a medical diagnosis or a biochemical problem replaces the moral judgments and decisions that are the traditional purview of the novel.

The core of Secret Life is Ryan's struggle with "sex addiction," an "illness" some bluenoses among us might call sexual predation. He traces his addiction to two childhood traumas -- having been molested several times over the course of a year as a 5-year-old, and having been psychologically "abused" by his alcoholic father.

Ryan lumps the two together as equivalent violations. But it is his molestation that he uses to explain his own lecherous behavior towards his teenage students and various anonymous sex partners. "She was only one in a long line of students with whom I reenacted my own sexual abuse, from the other side, as the molester, as if I could escape its unhappy imprinting by being [my molester] and not myself," he says towards the end of the book. As for the sex itself, Ryan's not the one doing it: "I wasn't in a blackout. I was fully conscious the whole time.