In the Oft-Reviled Genre of Memoirs, Here are Some Memoirs to Love

by Meta Wagner

23 February 2011

A subgenre has emerged that should placate memoirphobes and please memoirfiles: the artist-teacher memoir.
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Memoir: A History

Ben Yagoda

US: Nov 2009

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Just Kids

Patti Smith

US: Nov 2010

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Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

Steve Martin

(Simon & Schuster)
US: Sep 2008

Review [28.Jan.2008]
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Keith Richards

(Little, Brown & Company)
US: Oct 2010

It’s hard to think of any other form of writing that generates as much vitriol as memoir.  The case against memoir goes something like this:  it’s narcissistic and pretentious.  It’s a glorified blog.  Memoir writers are at best inaccurate (they can’t possibly recall conversations from 20 years ago, never mind yesterday) and at worst liars (they exaggerate events for dramatic effect or fabricate ones entirely).

In a recent article in The New York Times Book Review, Neil Genzlinger went full throttle against most memoirs, calling them a “bloated genre”.  Even Ben Yagoda, in his ultimately positive examination of the form, Memoir: A History, acknowledges that the popularity of memoir is a reflection of the age we live in, one of “more narcissism overall, less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood, and a therapeutic culture.” 

He also writes that the genre, which he calls the “central form of the culture,” has spawned a “million little subgenres” (take that wordplay, James Frey!), including “celebrity, misery, canine, methamphetamine, eccentric-mother,” and so on.

Thankfully, a subgenre has emerged that should placate memoirphobes and please memoirfiles:  I’m calling it the artist-teacher memoir.  I believe people are fascinated by people who live to create:  what sparks their interest, what keeps them motivated, what distinguishes them from people who create to live. 

This subgenre is not entirely new; in fact, one of the most beloved books in this category, A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, was published nearly a half century ago.  (And, Hemingway’s admonition to “write one true sentence” has inspired and intimated decades of writers ever since).

The trend seems to be on the upsurge, with artists seeking to capture and convey essential aspects of what it means to be a creative person.  Critics and readers alike have been devouring them, not just for the stories of their lives but for the stories behind their art. 

What strikes me most about these current artist-teacher memoirs is a common thread that runs through them:  they describe the desire to do something new, something people hadn’t quite seen or heard before.  They had such a clear vision of what they wanted to accomplish through art. 

Just Kids, winner of the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction, is a dual memoir about the Mother of Punk and the controversial photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, her friend, former lover, and co-muse.  I loved the book for its evocation of a bygone era in New York when artists like them could barter their creative work in exchange for a room at the Chelsea Hotel. 

Smith, who’s best known for her album, Horses, and her hit single, “Because the Night” (partially written by Bruce Springsteen and then handed off to Smith to finish and record), not only captured the magic of a particular time and place, but also captured something that often eludes writers:  the magic of the creative process.

In describing her goals for a breakthrough performance she gave at an event called the Poetry Project, she writes, “I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll.”  And, as she progressed from poet to songwriter, that’s exactly what she did. 

Similarly, Mapplethorpe was able to define his artistic goal.  As Smith recalls, “His mission was not to reveal, but to document an aspect of sexuality as art, as it had never been done before.  What excited Robert the most as an artist was to produce something that no one else had done.”

Born Standing Up by the comedian Steven Martin is another recent artist-teacher memoir that contains such clearsightedness and certainty about artistic aims.  Even if you witnessed Martin burst upon the comedy scene in the 1970s on SNL and in sold-out arena performances (after eight long years of struggle and relative anonymity), you might not have been able to pinpoint what was so different about his brand of comedy, but you knew something was different.  Born Standing Up solves the mystery.

As Martin wrote, “There could be nothing that made the audience feel they weren’t seeing something utterly new.”  He was reacting against the longstanding punch line approach to stand-up comedy:  “What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgement that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song.” 

After months of contemplating this, Martin arrived at a realization: “If I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation.  This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.”

While it took awhile for the critics to catch on, his fellow comedians got it, and so did his audience.  Martin knew he’d achieved his goal when his friend, the comedian Rick Moranis, dubbed his act “anti-comedy”. 

And now Rolling Stones guitarist extraordinaire Keith Richards, to some people’s surprise (maybe even his own), has joined the ranks of artist-teacher memoirist.  Life appeared on numerous top ten 2010 nonfiction book lists.  Richards gives the readers what they probably thought they wanted—sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll—but wows them with his devotion to the blues and his goal of turning the world onto them. 

Papa Hemingway would be proud.

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