Professor in the Writing Division, School of the Arts
I noticed that during the brouhaha over James Frey’s alleged memoir last January, you were quoted in the media as saying that if memoirists distort the facts, they should be writing novels. I take it you’re not particularly excited about living in the age of the memoir?
I don’t agree that this is the “age of the memoir.” The memoir, a narrative branch of autobiography, is one of many forms employed in current literature. There are many more novels and short stories being written and published than memoirs.
Do you enjoy reading memoirs, or would you prefer to read novels?
I am not particularly interested in reading the memoirs of people who have had little life experience. The memoir an artist, scientist, public figure, etc. might write in the latter part of his/her life can be illuminating, entertaining or instructive, because it encompasses a good deal of time, experience, and the creative imaginativeness necessary to shape the events of one's life into a narrative that someone else would want to read. The “memoir” of a 25-year-old has to be very compelling and unique to be of interest. And I say that as someone who had published a great deal of poetry at 25. But that is something else. Transforming the events of one’s life for art is a different pursuit from putting these events in perspective as an internal observer.
How about blogs?
I do not read any blogs except political ones on occasion if the topic especially interests me. At a time when many newspaper columnists have become increasingly timid and homogenized, it is good to be able to pursue important subjects -- like stolen presidential elections, illicit wars and a corrupt one-party government -- through both straight reportage and interesting opinions. I think of blogs as the latter: they work like op-ed pieces or letters to the editor.
Can you see yourself writing a blog or a memoir?
Perhaps late in my life I will write a memoir if I have something left to say that I have not said across my career as a poet and novelist -- and if nonfiction is the vehicle best suited to do it. I have no interest in writing a blog.
How do you explain the popularity of writing blogs and memoirs?
People have a lot to say, they are as self-absorbed and opinionated as their predecessors; and technology offers them a ready means of expressing themselves. One no longer has to submit a piece to an editor to publish it; it can simply be posted as a blog. People should do it all they want. I'm all for utterly free expression. If that blog finds a single interested reader besides the writer, terrific.
The memoir has achieved some popularity today for obvious reasons: our culture celebrates the confessional and the sensational; people tend to talk more than they think; and gossip and “true stories” are disseminated on television and the Internet at a rate unimaginable before 1980, much less 1900.
Are the two trends related? After all, blogs consist of personal reflections on subjects of close personal or professional interest.
It would be easy to say that memoir writing and blogging are related, but the memoirist probably has to spend a great deal of time shaping and relating his material; the blogger can dash off a fragment of a fragment (and perhaps a very good one) in far less time, much as I am expressing my opinions in these answers -- far more rapidly than it would take me to write an essay for a book, anthology or magazine.
Is there anyone, alive or dead, whose memoir or blog you’d love to read—a friend, a colleague, a family member, a famous person?
Any of the four categories of people you mention if the memoir were compelling and enlightening -- and, again, if the person had something inspired, of substance, and thought-provoking to write about. Those would be my only criteria. Just because someone says or writes something about himself doesn't mean that anyone else would want to read it. And there is so much you ought to read in this world, no matter what your profession, that you had better be discriminating.
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