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Diagnosing the cause of memoir fever

Memoirs.jpg"Why do you think memoirs are so popular these days?" my friend Gabi asked me roughly ten weeks ago.  I told her that I hadn't given the question much thought.  She had, however, and her conclusion (I'm summarizing) was that people these days are too stupid for novels: society, to paraphrase her view, is dumbing down to the point where the only stories that grip are elevated gossip.

I was dubious, as I am of all claims that society is getting dumber.  From what I can see, society has always been composed of a healthy majority of idiots.  In any event, I've never been convinced by comparisons between today's reading population and that of times past because literacy rates are so much higher now.  You can't expect literate morons to gravitate to the same fare as literate non-morons, and incorporating so many of these morons into the literate population (a development which I fully endorse) was bound to change the overall mix of reading options.

But I continued to mull Gabi's question, and I was still mulling when Daniel Mendelsohn published his review of Ben Yagoda's book, Memoir: A History, in The New Yorker.  Mendelsohn, like Gabi, suggests that the recent glut of memoirs "may be filling a gap created by the gradual displacement of the novel from its once central position in literary culture."  Although Yagoda apparently doesn't speculate about why such a displacement is occurring, Mendelsohn has a theory.  Televised talk shows, reality TV and the confessional Internet culture, Mendelsohn conjectures, may be creating an audience that cannot identify with protagonists who don't claim to be "real":

Indeed, shows like Winfrey's, with their insistence on "real" emotions, may themselves have created an audience for whom fictional emotions are bound, in the end, to seem like little more than "dramatization without illumination." If you can watch a real lonely woman yearning after young hunks on a reality dating show, why bother with Emma Bovary?
Although, as numerous recent memoir fakes have demonstrated, "real" protagonists often tread into fictional territory, modern audiences (according to Mendelsohn) may find such protagonists easier to sympathize with (and to forgive) than fictional characters.

I am as intrigued by Mendelsohn's explanation, but ultimately as skeptical of it as I am of Gabi's.  Certainly, "real" stories have an allure that the fictional will always lack, but the notion that an audience's ability to relate to characters depends on the claimed truthfulness or fictional nature of the story doesn't (intuitively) strike me as persuasive. 

More likely, in my opinion, is that people are becoming conditioned to expect certain narratives in certain media: quite possibly people are gravitating towards TV and Internet content that delivers some semblance of "the real" - 24 hour news stations, reality TV, infotainment, documentaries, nature programming and, of course, talk shows.  Television and dynamic Internet leave less room for the imagination than a book; demanding that such media deliver narratives that, likewise, are composed of more facts and less fantasy is (to my mind, misguided, but nonetheless) an understandable expectation.

But if people aren't becoming too stupid for novels, and if television and Internet narrative expectations aren't infecting books, then what explains the recent outpouring of published memoirs?  The most credible supposition, to my mind, builds on a point Judith Shulevitz made in her review of Yagoda's Memoir in The New York Times Review of Books.  She argues that memoirists, whether liars or oracles (or, more likely, something in between), appeal:

(1) because [they] might become . . . friend[s]; (2) because we might learn something useful; and (3) because we can't help being curious about the ways other people go about reflecting on themselves and justifying their existence.
At this historical moment, those last two reasons are intensely salient.  The modern world demands much of its denizens.  People must be educated and informed.  They must be physically fit and attractive.  They must be healthy and engaged in the world.  They must have families and jobs.  They must be sexy and productive.  They must be prosperous and environmentally-sound.  They must be free of prejudices and self-aware.  They must be mobile and simultaneously rooted in family and community. 

No other time in history has demanded as much of its people.  Typically, in past ages, societies have been content to let their women occupy one limited realm, their soldiers another, and they restricted similarly their wise men, merchants, rulers, wealthy and poor.  These groups all had roles that were, generally speaking, well-defined; and these roles required skill sets that were, generally speaking, within the capacities of their players to learn within a relatively short time.  Not so today: "unbounded" is le mot just with respect to social roles.  Everyone must be everything.  And the necessary skills for such high-level functioning require more time, training and experience to acquire than most of us will ever have.

The current popularity of memoirs, to my mind, relates to these social demands.  Memoirs tantalize readers with the promise of answers to their stress-inducing question: how do you do it?  How do you meet social expectations in this day and age?  Can someone else - someone successful enough to merit a published book about their life - tell me what I'm supposed to do?

Historically, of course, seekers of such information turned to (among others) the witch doctors, elders, gossips and teachers of their day.  They might also seek second opinions in the works of their relevant epic poets, myth makers, and story tellers (playwrights, novelists, etc.).  

Usually, of course, the advice of the witch doctor contingent was oral and unrecorded, so quite possibly we undercount the extent to which it was relied on by past generations.  Today, of course, the modern equivalents of the witch doctors (Jack Welch, Rick Warren, Sarah Palin, etc.) have many mass platforms and outlets on and by which to promote and record their answers to the pressing question: how do you do it?  So perhaps we now overcount their importance.  

Regardless, if today we are seeing a supposedly ahistorical reliance on the witch doctors, et al., and a corresponding decline in reliance on the epic poets and their ilk, perhaps the reason is not the audience's intelligence, nor its capacity for identifying with fictional characters, but the content of the fiction on offer.  Surely fiction that enfolds the breadth of this global moment and provides fodder for rumination about the modern predicament is not penned by MFA graduates enjoying suburban lives underwritten by their jobs teaching in MFA programs?

(Image of title page of Benjamin Franklin's memoirs from the website of The Library Company of Philadelphia)

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