In the late 1990s, a young writer fresh out of rehab began writing a novel about his escape from a life of addiction. Like his hard-drinking literary heroes Ernest Hemingway and Jack Kerouac, the young novelist wanted to set down the facts of his life with searing honesty, but like his heroes, he juiced the truth to make the story more interesting. Some years earlier, for instance, he had been locked up for a few hours on a drunk-driving charge. In his novel, he threw in a punching match with the arresting officer and a bag of crack cocaine and left his protagonist to rot in jail for three months. In another instance, a girl he had known as a kid had been killed in a tragic train accident, and in his novel, he wrote his protagonist into her story and added a scene in which the whole town blames him for her death.
But when he tried to sell this thinly disguised autobiographical novel, it was turned down by 17 major publishers. In fact, his novel might still be sitting in a drawer had not Nan Talese, a big-name editor at Doubleday, one of the houses that had originally rejected it, offered to publish it instead as a memoir called A Million Little Pieces. By 2006, after Oprah Winfrey put the young author James Frey on TV, his novel-turned-memoir had sold 3.5 million copies.
A decade after Oprah dragged Frey through the mud on national television, memoirist Mary Karr is still pissed at him. Karr, who has chronicled her own battles with addiction, says she smelled a rat in Frey’s tale all along, but what sticks in her craw is the brazenness of his deception. “He didn’t really believe he was incarcerated for months, when he never served a day,” Karr writes in her new craft book, The Art of Memoir. “He set out to fool people.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another way to look at it is that Frey wrote a mediocre autobiographical novel and a savvy editor saw that, given how the modern publishing industry is built, his unsellable work of fiction had the all makings of a hit memoir.
As a literary form, memoir dates back at least to St. Augustine’s Confessions, but as Julie Rak reminds us in her book, Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market, it is only recently that writers who weren’t already well-known began turning nonfiction versions of their life stories into bestsellers. Which is not to say that writers weren’t retailing their life stories with great success long before the so-called “memoir boom” ignited in the early 1990s. As Frey himself notes in an interview with The Guardian shortly after the Oprah dust-up, many classic novels of the 20th century might today be published as memoir. “I mean, the idea that The Sun Also Rises is not about Hemingway’s life,” he says, “or On the Road is not about Kerouac’s life, or anything ever written by Bukowski or Celine or Henry Miller is not about those men’s lives, is a ridiculous idea.”
Frey then adds:
What’s interesting is that On the Road was going to be published as nonfiction, and they altered it [because] they were worried about legal ramifications. And because at the time fiction was much more popular than nonfiction. For me it was almost the opposite, y’know—nonfiction is much more popular now.
Whether or not this is literally true of On the Road, Frey is right that readers have long been drawn to autobiographical tales of authors’ youthful misadventures. What has changed is that we no longer require these writers to don the respectable veil of fiction—and in fact, as book buyers, we would rather they didn’t.
As writers of literary fiction increasingly find they have to traffic in high-concept premises or be satisfied with poorly paid critical respect, a writer with a personal, character-driven story to tell is more likely to cash in if he or she can claim the story is true. Thus, we get James Frey and an ever-growing shelf of “fauxmoirs” like Love and Consequences, a 2008 work of fiction about race and gang life in South Central, L.A., by Margaret Seltzer, a middle-class white woman who changed her name to Margaret B. Jones and went on radio speaking with an affect so readers would believe her novel was a memoir.
Critics of the modern memoir tend to credit its rise to a culture of narcissism and navel-gazing among the young, or less pejoratively, to a yearning for authenticity, a reality hunger born of a blurring of truth and fiction in public life. In reality, the growth in popularity of the form has as much, or more, to do with the restructuring of the publishing industry than it does any cultural shift. As Rak notes in Boom!, the advent of cheap paperbacks in the postwar years not only created new markets for popular detective, romance, and sci-fi novels, but also for quickie nonfiction books about a person in the news. These could be produced quickly and cheaply, with a sensibility more in keeping with the news business than that of the stodgier book business, and were sold not in bookstores, but alongside their “pulp fiction” brethren in drug stores and train station newsstands.
Thus, for a decade or two after World War II, American publishing operated along two parallel tracks. Older, more prestigious publishing houses produced high-quality hardback volumes of nonfiction about ex-presidents and other grandees alongside literary fiction written for an educated elite who shopped at independent bookstores. At the same time, a far less prestigious book industry sold pulp fiction and nonfiction to middle-class and working-class readers who bought their books where they bought their newspapers and magazines—in drug stores and train stations.
These two business models collided, however, when publishing firms began merging in the 1960s. Between 1960 and 2001, by Rak’s count, there were 1,250 publishing mergers, subsuming literally thousands of small, often family-run publishing firms into a handful of multinational conglomerates, which were in many cases owned by even larger media companies. In this mad shuffle, prestigious literary houses got swallowed up by the same companies that bought out firms producing cheaper books, blurring the institutional line between “literary” and “pulp.”
While the merger frenzy injected fresh capital into publishing, it brought with it a corporate-style focus on high profit margins, creating ever more pressure to produce bestsellers. At the same time, publishing houses began to publish the hardback and paperback editions of the books they produced, further diluting the distinction between “quality” and “cheap” books, which helped give birth to a new species of book, the “trade paperback”—the form, not so incidentally, in which most bestselling memoirs take off.
As publishing was evolving in the postwar years, so were bookstores and media companies. Fifty years ago, good bookstores were rare outside major cultural centers, but by the early 1980s bookstore chains had invaded malls across the country, draining business from the drug stores and newsstands that had sold pulp books in the past. Now, not only were publishers producing literature and pulp, but readers were finding them in the same store, sometimes shelved side by side. Meanwhile, as newspapers began their long descent into digital irrelevance, the book page was often one of the first casualties, and TV and radio became prime drivers of book sales. Since a talking head reviewing a book is deadly boring, hosts instead began inviting authors onto their shows to talk about their books—an exercise made exponentially more entertaining when a book’s author and protagonist are the same person.
This, then, was the state of play in 1989 when Tobias Wolff, author of several respectfully reviewed story collections and a prize-winning novella, published his first memoir This Boy’s Life, which became a national bestseller and a hit movie starring the young Leonardo DiCaprio. A few years later, Susanna Kaysen hit the bestseller lists with Girl, Interrupted and Elizabeth Wurtzel bared her navel on the cover of Prozac Nation, and by 1995, when Karr came out with her first memoir, The Liar’s Club, the gold rush was on.
You will find little of this history in The Art of Memoir, but it is there, albeit subtextually, in the defensive crouch Karr adopts toward critics of her chosen genre. Boiled down to its essence, Karr’s defense of memoir rests on her belief in an artful admixture of truth and storytelling moxie. Karr readily admits that no memoirist can be expected to perfectly recall dialogue spoken decades earlier, and that even if she could, the very act of choosing one detail over another distorts the objective truth of the events in question. “Memoir done right is an art, a made thing,” she writes. “It’s not just raw reportage flung splat on the page.”
Still, she has zero time for memoirists who don’t aim for the truest versions of their life stories they are capable of telling. Speaking of another writer who admits to embellishing details in nonfiction, Karr is blunt in her disdain: “It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”
This is both funny and true, but while Karr appears to be addressing the largest knock on memoirs, her book neatly sidesteps the deeper, structural problems with the genre. Though she doesn’t use the term, The Art of Memoir, which grew out of MFA courses Karr teaches at Syracuse University, focuses on what one might loosely call creative nonfiction. This term means different things to different people, but if it has any practical meaning in a publishing sense, it denotes a work of nonfiction conceived and written exclusively by its author, not dreamed up or shaped by an agent or editor.
But while the creative nonfiction model may be the one taught in university classrooms, it isn’t how most commercial memoirs are actually produced. With rare exceptions, novels are submitted to agents and editors only after they are finished, while nonfiction books, including memoirs, are typically bought based on a proposal. A book proposal can take many forms, but generally it includes some sample chapters, an outline of the book, and often a discussion of who is likely to read it and why. In other words, while novelists arrive in the publishing marketplace with a finished product, memoirists show up with a business plan, which has itself typically been heavily shaped and edited by a literary agent.
In my reporting in the publishing world, I have sat with agents whose job it is to trawl the blogosphere and tap their personal networks with an eye out for someone whose zeitgeisty blog or proximity to the pop culture spotlight might net a book contract. In some cases, these people created the blog or instigated their brush with fame precisely in order to cash in on it. In other cases, the would-be memoirists have no notion of themselves as potential protagonists of a book, and are stunned to learn they might be. Either way, the agent helps the memoirist craft a proposal, offering advice on how to structure the narrative, how to position it in the current market, and, if need be, providing a ghostwriter to write the actual book.
This, the old-school pulp mentality that produces so many of those strange quickie books that appear and then disappear from bookstore shelves, is the real enemy of the creative nonfiction Karr so avidly defends in The Art of Memoir. Because whether its practitioners like to admit it or not, contemporary memoir, to a far greater degree than contemporary fiction, is an agents’ and editors’ medium. Readers, even those who couldn’t care less how publishing works, sense this, and are put off by it.
When the consolidation of the publishing industry lumped pulp publishers in with prestige literary houses, it gave literary artists like Tobias Wolff and Mary Karr access to a lucrative mass audience they wouldn’t have had otherwise, but it also forced them, and more particularly the writers who came after them, to play by the rules of the pulp world, which emphasizes extremes of experience, often involving emotional or physical trauma, coupled with a yearning for middle-class normality.
Think for a moment about the authors whose books set the memoir boom in motion. Wolff and Karr were academics. Frank McCourt taught high school. Susanna Kaysen was the daughter of a famous economist at MIT. Any educated American reader could identify with these people, even aspire to be them. In their books, they reveal horrific trauma they endured in their past, but what made their books so moving, and what moved so many units, was that they survived, thanks to a mix of smarts, pluck, and a deep yearning for a respectable middle-class life. In one way or another, all these books recast the American Dream in a fable-like form—except that these fables were true.
In the mainstream imagination, where literary and pulp sensibilities meet, the fact that the stories are true matters enormously. Wolff has written heartbreaking fiction about growing up poor with his half-crazy mother, including one of my all-time favorite stories, “Firelight,” collected in the 1992 Best American Short Stories, but it wasn’t until he used real names that Hollywood came calling. If his story is true, and Wolff really survived the childhood he describes in This Boy’s Life, then whatever life lessons he might have to impart are also real, and I as a reader can apply them to overcome whatever traumas I might have suffered.
This trick was easy enough to pull off for these early trailblazers, whose lives fit the template without too much embellishment. But once creative nonfiction left the rarefied sphere of literary publishing, where the author is king, it entered a rougher, pulp-minded world whose books look the same as their more literary cousins, are sold in the same stores, and follow much the same narrative playbook, but are partly or wholly created by publishing professionals who know a money-spinning formula when they see it.
In this world, the agent notes that the cooking blogger was single when she started and is now married and tosses out, just as a possibility, the title “Table for Two: How a Single Girl Cooked Her Way Into the Heart of the Man of Her Dreams.” Your recipes are great, he explains, but the book needs an arc, a journey the reader can travel. In this world, an editor asks a newly successful entrepreneur if by any chance he had a overbearing father who belittled his ideas. Was he dyslexic as a child? A teen drug user with a rebellious streak? Before long the entire genre is tarred with the pulp brush, and even the most earnest creative nonfictionist knows he needs at least one heroin overdose in his past because a merely unhappy childhood, no matter how artfully rendered, equals a life of quiet literary desperation.
And then, into this world, walks the next James Frey.
Image Credit: Pexels/Donald Tong.
My Struggle is a six-volume memoir written by Norwegian novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard. The six volumes combine for a total of 3,600 pages, and despite the memoir’s length, it has become a literary sensation across Europe. Translated into thirteen languages, and the winner of many literary prizes, My Struggle has sold nearly a million copies. The first volume – simply titled My Struggle: Book One – is now available for the first time in the United States, translated into English by Don Bartlett.
Knausgaard, at age 43, is now retired from writing – reportedly the sixth and final volume of My Struggle ends with him announcing and explaining his retirement – and living in the Swedish countryside with his wife and children, where he plans to open a small publishing company. As much as Knausgaard gained from the writing of My Struggle, he also lost. He gives such an assiduously detailed and brutally honest account of his experiences, his thoughts, and his feelings that several of his family members and former friends have broken ties with him. Many readers in his home country, too, feel that he overstepped his bounds in the betrayal of confidences and violation of trusts. Knausgaard questions if, given the opportunity to travel back in time, he would write it all over again. “Do you think your literature is worth your uncle, or whoever? Is literature more important than hurting people? You can’t argue that,” he told the Guardian in March when the book was released in Britain.
Knausgaard will likely go through some emotional labor in his attempt to balance literature’s value with the relationships his literature cost him, but readers are left only with the books. Readers experience My Struggle as art and art only, and it is great art.
Book One of My Struggle begins with Knausgaard wondering why Western culture has such ritualistic and social demand to cover up dead bodies. If someone dies on a lawn, the first instinct is to cover the body with a blanket. Morgues are in the hospitals’ lower levels, and when bodies are transferred to the morgues, they are done so underneath a sheet. After a funeral, the family watches the body of their loved one lowered into the ground, where she will forever rest below five feet of dirt and a few inches of grass. He then, without resolving the question of burial, begins reflecting on a memory from his childhood – a day when, at eight years old, he thought he saw the ocean form a face during a news broadcast about missing boat and crew. He immediately told his father, who reacted with mean-spirited scorn and dismissal. The opening of the book gives a good introduction to its themes and its style. Knausgaard is investigating himself through his experiences with a cold, at best, and cruel, at worst, father. Relationships and death give the book its turning points, and it is written in a reflective style that, often without warning or provocation, jumps from philosophical meditation to the narrative of memory. The subjects of the philosophical reflections are big – popular music, visual art, literature, parenting, pornography, death – and many of the stories are seemingly small – a good fifty pages of the book has Knausgaard leaping in and out of a memory involving a New Year’s Eve party he attended as a teenager.
The stories of Knausgaard’s childhood are universally relatable. They include reflective accounts of his first kiss and first beer, his learning how to play guitar just enough to join a bad rock band, his troublemaking with friends, and his first love. His childhood makes up part one of Book One, and part two has him writing as an adult during the months leading up to his father’s death. At that point, his father was a full blown alcoholic. Knausgaard confesses to wishing him dead, but when the moment actually arrived, he sobbed uncontrollably and cursed himself for “stupid sentimentality.” As an adult, his life becomes more specific – much of it is rooted in the routines, concerns, and ambitions of being a writer. The constant, however, is self-discovery, and although parts one and two of Book One are related in that his father’s death causes him to revisit and reevaluate his childhood, and memories return to him in new clarity as he prepares to bury his father, the book refreshingly lacks a coming together chapter. Knausgaard refuses to tie up Book One in a bow. There is no great lesson – though there are many insights. He doesn’t look out a window one day and realize he was wrong about his father. His life does not fundamentally change. His life just continues, in tragedy and triumph, in the mundane and the dramatic. It just is.
Towards the conclusion, Knausgaard solves his own riddle about the concealment of dead bodies. Death, he argues, is the last remaining reminder of something beyond the domain of human intelligence. Religious experience is no longer powerful in Western Culture. Art is dehumanized to a point of lacking transcendent capabilities, and therefore death is the last part of life beyond the control of the intellect – outside the realm of technique. Death is the ultimate mystery of the mystery within life, but for the living, death is also a lesson in humility. As Knausgaard concludes, “For humans are merely one form among many, which the world produces over and over again, not only in everything that lives, but in everything that does not live, drawn in sand, stone, and water. And death, which I have always regarded as the greatest dimension of life, dark, compelling, was no more than a pipe that springs a leak, a branch that cracks in the wind, a jacket that slips off a clothes hanger and falls to the floor.”
Knausgaard’s struggle is everyone’s struggle. It is the search for meaning, and the desperately internal hunt for purpose. The “My” in the title is crucial, because while the major elements of his struggle are shared, the particularity of his life, his experiences, and his relationships make the struggle uniquely his own. According to European reviews, in Book Four he wrestles with titling his book with the same phrase Hitler used for his prison memoir, but those reviewers, and there are many, who obsess over that commonality miss the point.
The point is found in the book’s language. The language, what Knausgaard calls the “banality of the everyday,” complements the microscopic scrutiny under which Knausgaard puts his life. He will spend a paragraph describing a fly’s movement, and then spend three paragraphs describing a shirt his father wore, and then at some point, write something brilliant about the nature of love. In the tradition of St. Augustine’s Confessions and Dostoevsky’s Notes From the Underground, Knausgaard has fashioned a book that contains an immersive world that begins to feel more real than reality. When the reader enters that world, she accepts an invitation to tour every detail of Knausgaard’s life.
The late Jacques Derrida wrote that the power of relatability comes from particularity. The more particular a story, the more universal it becomes. A contrived attempt at universality is typically too vague to grab people’s emotions. When reading My Struggle, I found childhood memories that had not occurred to me in several years coming back to me in vivid color and specificity. Then, I found myself, just as Knausgaard is able to in his book, reflecting on them in a new light, and gain new truths never before considered.
The overwhelming quality of the reading experience, and the dominant feeling of the book, is melancholic. It is melancholy to review the meaning of your life, especially in the face of inevitable death – death of loved ones and one’s own death.
Knausgaard, in Book One and I would assume over the stretch of the 3,600 pages that make up all six volumes of My Struggle, shows that even if introspection is tough and painful, it is important. By so closely examining his life and so fearlessly presenting it, he is able to teach the reader the true danger of investigating the self and honestly dealing with the results.
Soren Kierkegaard was fond of telling readers that there once lived a man who never knew he existed until the morning he woke up dead. Social networking and ubiquitous communicative technology facilitate a self-surveillance state, and reality television is the externalized form of the surveillance mentality. It sells voyeurism as amusement, and in the selling of “drama” for the sake of “drama” it succeeds in creating an alternative television universe in which the trajectory of an individual’s life is reduced to triviality. In an age of superficiality, Knausgaard has done something subversive by intensely inspecting himself and revealing the fraud of our self-comforting delusions, and the artifice of confessionalism as entertainment.
To summarize the act of writing and releasing the book, Knausgaard said, “I have given away my soul.” That may sound extreme, but to give away the soul, one must first know he has a soul, where to find that soul, and what exactly is that soul. That is another struggle, and in raising the bet of the existential philosophical tradition, Knausgaard may have shown that the greatest and most important struggle is for each person to learn how to give away the soul. Give away the soul to prepare to die, and give away the soul to prepare to live.