The Magazine

It’s Autobiographical

‘The most democratic province of the republic of letters.’

Mar 29, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 27 • By TRACY LEE SIMMONS
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Exhaustively combing through stacks most of us would gladly pass by, Yagoda traces the line of Rousseau’s less distinguished progeny, where we learn, for instance, that the down-and-out sort of memoir released under the names of former wastrels is no modern invention; criminals’ tales, some told by those two feet from the gallows, enjoyed an especial popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries—but whether serving the appetites of the prurient or the upright as morality tales isn’t always clear. 

It also turns out that authenticity of authorship in memoirs has been open to question for centuries. Yagoda dredges up cases of memoirs from the 1920s and ’30s that were proven to be outright fakes after enjoying healthy sales, and then lists the spate of more innocent books—and a heaping helping they are—from the 1940s and ’50s that took on zestier incarnations such as Broadway musicals, movies, and television series. But by the time we pull up into our own day—and to the 2006 disgrace of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces, the supposed hard-boiled street-life memoir quickly revealed to be a complete fabrication—much to Oprah’s hyperventilating ire for having been taken in—the scene becomes more than a bit dismal as we come to realize not only that we can never be quite certain who is writing under an author’s name, but that publishers have little incentive to ensure the integrity of the material they release into the world under the ever-more-broad rubric of the memoir form.

William Dean Howells once called autobiography “the most democratic province of the republic of letters,” and its practitioners have continually proven him right with a vengeance. Left unexplained to full satisfaction, perhaps because inexplicable, is the boundless attraction of the formula to writer and reader alike—though our “craving for the literal” is a nice guess—that has grown dramatically in the last two decades, and with implications for cultural life. Where once young talents with a yen to write were drawn to cut their literary teeth on a semi-autobiographical novel, now many of them run straight to the presumption that their heretofore brief lives and struggles with addiction, bulimia, parental abuse, unpopularity, acne, bunions, you name it—the Brits call this type the “misery memoir”—will interest the reading public. In vigilant hands, we concede, the gamble may be sound; but the skill required to write a compelling, let alone memorable, life story isn’t negligible, and where it’s lacking, publishers can be all too ready to provide ghostwriters for those not up to the sweaty demands of composition, straining the very idea of “authorship.” 


As Yagoda freely acknowledges, here sits the lump in the batter of all those celebrity memoirs infecting the market: Most celebrities are unliterary, even uneducated people, rarely able to produce so much as a vivid letter, much less a gripping manuscript; and when we see “as told to” or “with” after the bold-faced author’s name, and before a lower-cased lesser name on the dust jacket, it’s a good bet that the “author” hasn’t so much as sneezed near the thing. (One happy exception was Charles Lindbergh who, having been assigned a ghostwriter to produce his autobiography soon after his solo flight across the Atlantic, found the product from the professional writer noxious and, taking pen in hand, wrote the book himself—to popular and critical praise. Apparently even celebrity places no absolute bar against talent.)

When we return to those memoirs actually written by their authors, from Robert Graves’s Goodbye to All That and Beryl Markham’s West with the Night and Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory to Richard Wright’s Black Boy and James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and William Styron’s Darkness Visible, we see how vibrant the form can be, and how on the upper reaches of the craft it becomes an art producing books whose quality elevates them to literature, and bestows the right to gather dust in the best bookcases.

I wish that Yagoda had spent more ink on the real memoirs written up by stout, cultivated minds and less on the fraudulent or otherwise lesser ones, to hold the barricades by insisting that the memoir remain a literary genre, not a marketing tool. It’s a shame that A Million Little Pieces should be awarded more space in this account than Winston Churchill’s My Early Life, or the three-volume memoirs of George Santayana, both minor classics of the form, and neither meriting any mention at all.

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