Our Naked Desire for ‘Truth’

May 2, 2014 | , ,

For the past decade or more, American literary critics have been either celebrating a “memoir boom” or wringing their hands about it. Some said the boom was just a marketing campaign, and others wrote it off years ago. But surely the genre’s moment can’t be totally over if the most zeitgeisty character of our day, Hannah Horvath of HBO’s “Girls,” aspires to publish not novels or film scripts, but personal essays.

Life-writing is, of course, nothing new for Jews. Marcus Moseley’s Being for Myself Alone: Origins of Jewish Autobiography (2006) focuses on 19th- and early-20th-century texts, most of them written in Hebrew, and demonstrates the intensity with which modern Jews, busy fashioning themselves in relation to new opportunities, enacted and recorded such self-fashioning in a genre typical of modern Europe. In America, Mary Antin’s The Promised Land (1912), a bestselling memoir of immigration, was among the first nationally influential literary works by a Jew, and many copycat works followed.

Still, the quantity of autobiographies and memoirs now being produced by Jews in America beggars the imagination. For a sense of the scale, consider that a single magazine, Jewish Book World, has, since 2005, reviewed more than 425 newly published books in the category of autobiography/memoir. These run the gamut, offering recollections of childhood in dozens of countries, searches for family history, experiences of all sorts of illnesses and traumas, and the professional recollections of bakers and comedians and accountants and ne’er-do-wells, as well as the religious journeys of newly religious ba’alei teshuvah and newly rebellious apostates.

Some critics have read the current predilection for memoir as reflecting contemporary Americans’ narcissism. But that’s odd. The writing of memoirs may stem from unhealthy self-fascination, sure, but the publication of so many suggests that there’s a significant market for such works. And all those people eagerly reading memoirs can’t be dismissed as narcissists: They’re eager to read these memoirs precisely because they are a medium for learning about other people’s lives.

What the memoir boom may more reasonably indicate is the nature of the connection book-reading Americans now seek. That some readers seem consistently to be choosing memoirs over novels suggests, as the critic and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn has noted, “…how naked our desire is for certain kinds of narrative, however improbable or tendentious or convenient, to be true.”

As Mendelsohn suggests, that desire is naïve or, at best, quixotic. You needn’t embrace literary theory, and you needn’t have read the French philosopher Paul Ricoeur on the function of narrative, to recognize that every story that has ever been told — and lots of real life, too — incorporates fictional elements. Of course, there’s an important difference between smoothing out a story’s details and outright fabrication. Recognizing the inevitable fictionalization of autobiographical writing does not justify the invention of stories to play on the public’s sympathies, as in the case of the notoriously fabricated Holocaust testimony, Fragments: Memories of a Wartime Childhood, by Binjamin Wilkomirski.

But certainly any memoir worth discussing contains elements that are less than pure fact, whether it’s Mary Antin’s skipping over her marriage to a non-Jew, or Elie Wiesel’s fiddling with his age in Night, or André Aciman’s juicing the story of his last night in Alexandria in his celebrated tale Out of Egypt: A Memoir. Aciman has wondered whether “lying about one’s life” may, in fact, be “precisely what memoirs are all about, a way of giving one’s life a shape and a logic, a coherence it wouldn’t have except on paper.”

Memoirs like Aciman’s portray more or less tidied lives, and readers lap them up. A cynic might put it this way: How comforting it is to know that you can spend six or eight hours on your sofa, reading, and at the end, you’ll understand what it’s like to survive cancer, or grow up in Cuba, or transition from one gender to another!

One hopes, though, that readers aren’t so simple-minded. Probably, they’re not. They may actually understand that all of these memoirs are performances, and that the genre itself provides no great guarantee of truth or intimacy.

They may understand that a memoir is just another piece of playground equipment on which artists and writers can climb — one that is never not in dialogue with fiction.

They know this, that is, if they’ve read the postmodern literature that plays with our desire to identify characters with their authors (think of novels in which Philip Roth, Paul Auster, or Jonathan Safran Foer appear as characters). Or they know it if they’re attentive to the fact that Hannah Horvath, the great aspiring memoirist of our age, is, after all, herself the fictional creation of Lena Dunham.

[Originally published in Shma.]