Books

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

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

Publisher: Riverhead
Book: Memoir: A History
Author: Ben Yagoda
Publication Date: 2009-11
Publisher: HarperCollins
Book: Just Kids
Author: Patti Smith
Publication date: 2010-11
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Book: Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life
Author: Steve Martin
Publication date: 2008-09
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
Book: Life
Author: Keith Richards
Publication date: 2010-10

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.

Music
Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

PopMatters Seeks Music Critics and Essayists

If you're a smart, historically-minded music critic or essayist, let your voice be heard by the quality readership of PopMatters.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Books
Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Books

John Pham's ​J​&K​​ - It's a Matter of Perspective

In J&K, John Pham explores perspectives in the psychological sense. Like Picasso, he views things from more than one angle.

Film
Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Film

The Road to Murder in Love and War: Three Films from Claude Chabrol

The character's in Claude Chabrol's The Third Lover, Line of Demarcation, and The Champagne Murders are obsessively doubled and mirrored, reflecting and refracting their hunger for sex, love, money, and power.

Film

'Memento' Is the Movie of the Attention Economy

We are afraid of time, and so like Leonard in Memento, we kill it, compulsively and indiscriminately.

Film

What Lurks Beneath: 'Jaws' and Political Leadership in the Time of COVID-19

Boris Johnson admires the Mayor in Spielberg's Jaws. Remember him? He was the guy who wouldn't close the beaches -- and sacrifice that revenue source -- during a public crisis.

Recent
Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Music

The Killers - "Caution" (Singles Going Steady)

The Killers go for the big hooks and singable anthems on "Caution", but opinion is sharply divided about the song's merits amongst our Singles Going Steady panel.

Music

Lilly Hiatt - "Some Kind of Drug" (Singles Going Steady)

Lilly Hiatt sings about a different kind of love on "Some Kind of Drug". Hers is for a city and the impact gentrification has had its soul.

Music

There's Never Enough Time for Folk Music's James Elkington

The sometimes Wilco and Richard Thompson sideman, in-demand producer, and songwriter, James Elkington, muses on why it's taking longer than he expects to achieve more in a week than most of us get done in a lifetime.

Music

Billy Corgan Brainwashed Me: '90s Alternative Rock and the Introspective Abyss

Once in its thrall, these days I find the overriding message of '90s alt-rock especially naïve and even dangerous.

Books

Classic Shōjo Today: Moto Hagio's 'The Poe Clan'

Moto Hagio's The Poe Clan manga series a gender-fluid melodrama marked by deep psychological trauma.

Music

Salsa Band LPT Hints at the Genre's Future

LPT's debut album, Sin Parar, hits all the right notes for a contemporary salsa album.

Music

Jennah Barry Offers Up a Warm, Sublime Collection of Memorable Tunes on 'Holiday'

Canadian indie folkster Jennah Barry returns with her long-awaited sophomore album, Holiday, which takes on a looser, more relaxed approach.

Music

Fotocrime's '80s-Inspired Rock Is Often Half-Baked

Fotocrime's South of Heaven is interesting mostly in that it's one of the most mediocre rock records I've heard in a long time.

Music

Maria McKee Puts Down Her Electric Guitar and Picks up Dante on 'La Vita Nuova'

"Show Me Heaven" was another country. Maria McKee has moved to England, immersed herself in the Classics and turned away from the 21st century.

Books

Phuc Tran's Existential Trip of a Memoir, 'Sigh, Gone'

Phuc Tran's smart, tough memoir, Sigh, Gone, might launch a broken down kid to read 150 great books—for free, at the local library.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.