Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature
I understand that you have your own blog, Light Reading. Why did you decide to try blogging—will your blog become the basis of a memoir some day?
My blog will certainly not become the basis of a memoir. For me, blogging has not been a form of personal revelation. Light Reading mostly gives me a way to comment on what I'm reading, watching or otherwise thinking about in a mode that's at once less formal and more flexible than a conventional book review or an academic article. The personal voice of the blogger is part of what draws us to a given blog, but I don't find myself drawn—either as a reader or a writer—to very personal blogs.
You've also written novels. Are memoirs the new fiction, or do you see the two genres as largely distinct?
To some extent, "memoir" is a category publishers invented to give certain autobiographical fictions the appeal (both substantive and marketing-wise) of authenticity and truthfulness. That said, Mary Karr's The Liars' Club is a wonderfully good memoir, written in some of the most beautiful prose you'll ever read; and I cast no aspersions on her truthfulness when I say it could easily have been published as a novel instead. In the end, I'm not interested in the distinction between autobiographical fiction and memoir: what I care most about is the quality of the writing.
Can you analyze why writing (and reading) memoirs/blogs is now so popular? And are the two trends related?
I don't see memoir writing and blogging as very closely related, except insofar as we all have a desire to tell our stories (and, as readers, to find interesting first-person voices to enrich our imaginative lives). Some people use blogs as a way of keeping a more or less daily journal, but I can't say that most of those make for very compelling reading. For me, it's certainly the voice that draws me, but I prefer to read blogs that consist of cultural and/or literary commentary: Maud Newton's literary blog, for instance.
Finally, if you could read any contemporary person's memoir, whose would it be?
I wish I could read my grandmother's memoirs. I really wanted her to write her autobiography, both because of wanting to know more about her early life and because she had a wonderfully pungent and interesting personality; I went so far as to give her some questions to work with, and she wrote 10 or 15 pages in response that indeed are some of the funniest and most memorable writing I've ever seen. (Also incredibly indiscreet—she is absolutely scathing about the character flaws of her siblings!) It would be amazing to have an account of her whole life in her own words, but I feel lucky I've got even this little bit.
Whose blog would you most like to read?
Reading the letters of some of the 18th-century writers I love gives very much the same feel as reading a blog. Burke's letters are very interesting; Byron's are wonderfully good. I'd love to read a group blog composed by the major second-generation Romantic poets—let's say, Byron, Shelley and Keats, with occasional guest bloggers like William Hazlitt and Mary Shelley—focusing mainly on the literary and philosophical questions of the day. And just imagine if Jane Austen had kept an anonymous blog!
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