The Dangers Of Memoir
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/11/04
As I’ve recently been working on my own memoirs, at the behest of others, I have gotten around to reading quite a few memoirs of others. Without doubt, they have been uniformly poor books- either flat-out terribly written or with solid writing, but horribly edited. I have read memoirs that tell others how to write memoir, memoirs about ‘traumatic’ events and lives (read- melodramatic), memoirs about non-traumatic lives (read-dull), and memoirs apparently written for no other reason that a publisher trying to gull the reading public into believing its subject’s, a minor celebrity’s, life is worth caring about.
First off, what is memoir? Basically a memoir is a form or sub-genre of autobiography. The difference between the two is that autobiography is a form of journalism, while memoir is creative writing. I.e.- an autobiography has very little wiggle room to work in dealing with the facts of its subject’s life, while a memoir can compress events, pseudonymize, alter specific details for dramatic effect, etc. In short a memoir can use novelistic techniques, while an autobiography cannot- if it does there comes a certain hazy line where it has slipped into memoir. Secondly, there are 2 basic factors about successful memoirs. A memoir can be a good solid read if it has 1 of the 2 factors, & great literature if it has both. Factor 1 is that the subject of the memoirs has to be a) someone who’s led an interesting life, or b) someone who is historically important. You might call this a subset of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history- that is people want to know about General Patton but not a general patent clerk (Albert Einstein aside). Factor 2 is that the memoirist must be a good or great enough writer to overcome the absence of Factor 1, if needed. That is that the literary stylings must be memorable enough to make the life seem interesting if not, and seem important if not. If both factors are in place the makings of great literature are aborning. Fortunately, I am 2 for 2 in my memoirs, but the 2 main books I will be discussing are not. Those 2 books are the 2 most popular and influential memoirs of the last decade- Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work Of Staggering Genius and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.
Neither book is likely to be revered in a century as a classic work of literature, but McCourt’s is the far superior work, even if it is just ok. The basic problem with it is that while McCourt’s life of poverty in Ireland is interesting and there are a couple of dozen well written passages and anecdotes, the work is atrociously edited. All the more galling for the lack of good editing is that this was McCourt’s first book- he needed the help. The book is about 450 pages long and the 1st 300 pages deal with his first 6 or so years of growing up. We get the same images of infant death, Irish blarney, drunken dad, suffering mom, stalwart Frankie, and colorful Eriniana. The problem is that early childhood is necessarily the least interesting part of a life because a) the percentage of real memories per year is very low and b) the remembered is rarely cogitated upon enough to produce any coherent thesis of its import or meaning to a life.
At describing these things McCourt is excellent. The scene of him and his brother getting bananas from a vendor in Brooklyn and his mom thinking he stole them is excellent, BUT such only works its charms once. After about 50 pages we get the idea already: McCourt’s early life was bleak- it’s as if he wants us to really, really know he suffered. The opening page or so at first read seems to poke fun at the Irish habit of bemoaning their woes, but it quickly becomes apparent that McCourt intended no irony in its felicitous prose. He truly wants the reader to know the Irish suffering is on par with that of Jews, blacks, and American Indians. By going on for 300 pages with this the reader starts to turn off about a third of the way though, then skimming between the Godotvian feeling anecdotes of misery.
Things only pick up when Frank reaches his teens- he gets various employment, has a falling out with his mom and her lover, rues his dad’s departure, loses his virginity to a consumptive girl who dies, then heads off for America. There are many moving images and wonderfully non-stereotyped characters. The scenes with his tubercular lover are priceless, yet their whole affair is accorded a mere couple of pages vis-à-vis the dozens allotted the repetitious sufferings. A good editor would have told McCourt he had an intriguing 1st draft, but told him to cut the early years down to 100 pages, and double the teen tales to 300 pages. That 400 page edition of AA would have deserved all the acclaim the canonical edition has, while also being over 10% leaner.
This is the main reason why the film version of the book is actually better than the written version. That said, it’s far from a great film, but it more judiciously accords the interesting portions of McCourt’s life, with about ½ the film on the early years, and the rest on the teen years. As a writer I’ve often said that the poor practices of editors, publishers, and critics have had a disproportionately deleterious effect on contemporary literature. A bad editor either does not realize a gem that falls in their lap, passes on it, or butchers it, or they get a diamond in the rough, like AA, but have not the sense nor insight to demand the necessary revisions. Toni Morrison has made a career out of having her ill-edited novels published. Yes, she’s gotten acclaim, but once dead her trip to the canon will be fruitless because the poor editing of her work will become ok to speak of. But, McCourt was not Morrison- he was a first time author- his editor should have done a better job.
That said, AA is a masterwork when compared to Dave Eggers’ Genius. This book is so unimaginably bad that the only way its title’s words have any relevance is if they are applied to negatives. Fortunately, I borrowed the book from my mother-in-law and did not help enrich this pr-drenched hack. Genius fails both of my factors for memoir excellence by a ton. His life, if truly represented in the memoir, is dull, self-pitying, and self-aggrandizing. His is the archetypal life of ‘quiet desperation’ gone Madison Avenue. In short, his life is neither interesting nor important. Worse, though, is that he is not even a passable prosist. And it’s not because he’s stretching forms, nor anything near-Joycean, it’s that he simply cannot write a compelling sentence, much less a compelling narrative. I am not a believer in Chicken Littleism, that all was better yester, for things go in cycles, but Genius is a book that is horrendous writing in any day. Even 20 years ago it would have been laughed at by any publisher. Before I detail its execrability, let me opine on the reasons it became a bestseller. Genius comes after a couple of decades of MTV, computer games, porno on command, and Political Correctness. I.e.- the self and its instant gratification is the leading mover of advertising, politics, and now art. Eggers may be a genius, but its not in literature, but in marketing. His book is the literary equivalent of the pet rock of the 1970s.
I defy any reader of Genius to be able to point to a single well-crafted description, or a memorable scene. There are none. Is there even a well-written or memorable paragraph or sentence? 0 for 2. Eggers even celebrates his illiteracy with a near 50 page prologue that is meant as meta-humor, but is really just piffle, for it is not deep, not insightful, nor even original. Its real reason is to try to distract the reader from expecting that Eggers can actually write. This is the same ill that afflicts the work of Jackson Pollock- had he limited his drippings to a series of, say, 8-12 paintings one might legitimately scan the corpus for meaning. But to make a career out of dripping manifests the fact that the man did not really have a coherent, nor deep, vision. Had Eggers limited his wisecracking to 2- 3 pages tops, he may have been falsely accused of having a sense of humor. The bloat that was printed is merely the equivalent of a liar needing to constantly elaborate on his lies just so the prescients among us don’t suspect. Of course, we do, and the best of us know a put-on when we read it. Yet, Eggers thinks that if he pretends his prose’s lack of craft is a choice, then its failings are good, because for someone to write that badly and get published must mean there is a deeper meaning within. Hold on, reader, let me get that full guffaw out of the way….There. For years, at the Uptown Poetry Group, I would have to explain to young teenagers who thought that their poorly constructed and dull rants of how dull it was to write poorly constructed and dull rants about being bored in a café were not genius, nor even insightful. They were most floored when I told them that such rants were not even original. Eggers’ masturbation is what it is- masturbation alone. In short, a writer cannot effectively illustrate his character is bored by writing boringly. Some of the dullest characters in literary history were the fops whose lives were penned by Oscar Wilde- ‘nuff said.
On to the book’s tale: the first 30 or so pages follow his mother’s death by cancer. She pukes, she excretes, she spits, and this is supposed to invoke sympathy as Eggers describes how wretched his dying mother is. Then, before she finally kicks off (at which point the reader is delighted) his dad drops dead. Dozens of pages in and this is all that has happened, save for some banal conversation, and finding out he comes from an upper middle class, if not wealthy, family. Eggers has an absolutely tin ear for conversation- both in its content and in its utterance, plus he has no idea how conversation serves narrative- to push it along. I.e.- conversation is usually only superior to narration if it can capture the specifics, emotional intensity, or the essence of the moment or narrative better than a narration could. Also, conversation has to be interesting enough to stand on its own. Real banal banter is not good writing. Good conversation is written to be read and reread with appreciation, yet to fool the reader into believing someone might actually be profound enough to say what they say, even if unwittingly.
Example A of Eggers’ tin ear for conversation: (from pages 22-23)
‘Hi,’ I say.
‘Hi,’ Toph says.
‘How’s it going?’
‘Are you still hungry?’
‘Are you still hungry?’
‘Pause the stupid game.’
‘Can you hear me?’
‘Are you listening?’
‘Do you still want food?’
Now, I’ve taken a snip from a longer exchange, but this is typical of the conversation, one designed to show the relationship of Eggers to his baby brother Christopher (Toph). About 40% of the book is literally devoted to conversations of this depth. The fact is that most vapid people are vaguely aware of their state, and reveal the depths of their vapidity by trying to cover it up with poorly advised forays into bad philosophy or polysyllabicism. Eggers is not even clued in enough to recognize this point.
Example B of Eggers’ tin ear for conversation: (from page 64)
‘Are you bored?’
‘Yeah,’ he says.
‘Because you’re just lying there.’
‘Well, I’m tired.’
‘Well, I’m bored.’
‘Why don’t you go down and build a sandcastle?’
‘Down there, by the water.’
‘Because it’s fun.’
‘How much do I get?’
‘What do you mean, how much do you get?’
‘Mom used to pay me.’
‘To build a sand castle?’
I pause to think. I am slow.
‘I don’t know.’
Even worse than the tin-eared conversations is the utterly Dick & Jane-like A to B to C narrative. There is nary a moment of true reflection in the whole book. Whether this is because Eggers is simply vapid, or thinks his readers are is not important- the vapidity is. Instead, the whole book, especially the first third is nothing but self-referential pap- be it in advertisements of brand name products (the film version will score a coup in product placements), mention of rock groups, computer games, tv shows and characters, and pop arcana that only a decade on is already as dated as the courtly intrigues of John Dryden’s poetry.
What Eggers and his admirers believe to be in the vein of Joyce and Woolf is nothing better than the PC MFA workshopped drivel it sneers at. In fact, it’s probably worse because an occasional moment of sincerity might lend an oasised sentence or paragraph of sustained clarity in the midst of those deserts. Genius is merely PC workshop smart aleck writing that thinks it’s brilliant for its un-wry comments on things that have no staying power to begin with. Yet, this is merely a form of PC, itself. I once attended a poetry group run by a PC 12 Stepper. He claimed to hate PC, even as he practiced it. Why did he think he was non-PC? Because he farted in public. Thus, the essence of Genius. Furthermore, that Eggers, his little brother, whom he has guardianship over, and all the rest of the people in his life are rendered as stereotyped slackers only points up Eggers’ failings in regard to my 2 Memoir Factors. Either none of them are interesting nor important people, or they are, but Eggers is so lacking in human insight that he cannot portray this to the average (non-slacker) reader. This is not a tenet of post-modernism, but of dull writing- although some have synonymized the 2 terms.
As for Eggers’ life? Here are the main highlights of the non-events: after his parents’ deaths he and Toph move around, do banal WASPy things like slide around on wooden floors in their socks, toss frisbees, and argue over which brother ‘sucks more’. At a beach, one evening, Eggers and his girlfriend display their bigotry by falsely accusing some young Hispanic beachgoers of stealing his wallet- only to find he never took it with him to the beach. Does he reflect over this failing? No. Therefore the reader has Eggers’ shallowness only reinforced, and cares even less for the book’s presumptive protagonist. That this scene indulges itself for 16 pages, yet still lacks even an attempt at insight, makes that lack all the more glaring. Then he rhapsodizes on a central event of his youth- has-been tv star Mr. T’s move to his suburb with his daughters. Later, he starts a slacker magazine called Might, whose lone claim to infamy is that they convinced another has-been tv star, Adam Rich, to hoax his own death with them. What passes for a crisis in his life of ease is when, on page 136, he goes into a tizzy over the wording of some stickers he has printed up for the magazine. Perhaps the most painful piece of writing comes when Eggers tries out to be a participant on MTV’s The Real World show. He claims to have reprinted the actual questions of the interview and his answers. At over 50 pages this ‘interview; could have been summarized in a page or 2, at most. Here, Eggers reveals how utterly pathetic a person he is, how self-loathing and celebrity are his deepest trait and fondest dream, and how monumentally bankrupt of real creativity he is. Minor creativity, along the lines of writing for Mad magazine or Saturday Night Live- perhaps? But utterly unable to control a narrative line. A Madison Avenue advertising firm could use people like Eggers, not a publisher devoted to literature. The digression, easily detailed in a page, becomes a pointless digression of self-indulgence attempting to beard as self-aware deprecation of self-indulgence. How is this reckoned? 1) the piece is void of humor, 2) void of self-awareness, and 3) void of insight.
Regardless, the book ends with Eggers attempting to be poetic as he and Toph toss a Frisbee, only to descend into a bizarre Tourette’s-like rant. I challenge you to find me any poetry within the book’s end, even ignoring the excessive and self-defeating epithets:
….I only want you to run under with me on this sand like Indians, if you’re going to fucking sleep all day fuck you motherfuckers oh when you’re all sleeping so many sleeping I am somewhere on some stupid rickety scaffolding and I’m trying to get your stupid fucking attention I’ve been trying to show you this, just been trying to show you this- What the fuck does it take to show you motherfuckers, what does it fucking take what do you want how much do you want because I am willing and I’ll stand before you and I’ll raise my arms and give you my chest and throat and wait, and I’ve been so old for so long, for you, for you, I want it fast and right through me- Oh do it, you motherfuckers, do it do it you fuckers finally, finally, finally.
I won’t even comment on an upside down end piece on the errors made in the initial editions of the book. Eggers’ asslickers argue that the writing is dull because his life was dull, therefore he perfectly captured the zeitgeist of his times and life. This also makes him a ‘truthteller’- that PC term that I thought the Eggerses of the literati were averse to. My retort is simply- were the Joads of The Grapes Of Wrath leading such pedal-to-the-metal exciting lives? No. But Steinbeck made their dullness and struggles something memorable. Genius will likely be out of print in a decade or so, and utterly forgotten about. Good critics will correctly sneer and chuckle at Genius for being the Millennial equivalent of Jonathan Livingston Seagull.
As for today? There is little doubt that Genius stands as a promotional smash and total artistic failure. I do not know the exact sales figures, but I have read upwards of 4 million copies (hardback and paperback). As for the title? It was meant to make fun of the book cover blurbery that infests publishing, yet fails because it has a ring of sincerity- he truly believes his life has been heartbreaking and that he is a genius. He veritably screams it at the reader on every embarrassing page. This sort of failure can work on film- a medium that does not require interaction, merely to have its viewers let things wash over them- think of schlock film auteur Ed Wood’s monumentally bad films- they, at least have kitsch appeal. Eggers’ writing does not. In a decade or so when they are out of print and selling for a quarter in used book stores, people will openly chuckle at the fools who actually paid full price for this faux-postmodern troglodytic megalomaniacal garbage- one that is both formless, yet a wholly contrived and solipsistic formlessness.
Even were I not able to discern this on my own a quick scan of book
review websites shows that most non-slackers today even sneer at the book, as
well admitting that they could not even finish more than a few chapters- the
writing was so bad. As for Eggers himself? If he is anything remotely like
Genius portrays, he is a sad individual. He has probably dealt with 1/100th
the bullshit that Frank McCourt did, has 1/10th the writing ability,
yet seems utterly unable to get over the trivialities that most of us- even
writers- forget within weeks. Ok, Eggers became a de facto ‘single parent’
of his bother in his early 20s- so? Many people are single parents at
earlier ages, and suffer from traumas that make Eggers’ life seem like the
cakewalk it apparently was. That Eggers struggled handily to be the cipher that
is Eggers is the only honest point in the book, although gleaned only from
sniffing the blue-flied feces he squatted out.
Of course, reviewers went out of their way to blurb this tripe to the sky
in the hopes that the bestselling Eggers will eagerly go down on them when their
wannabe bestsellers come out. Here’s a sampling from the book itself:
piece of writing, a big, daring, manic-depressive stew of a book that noisily
announces the debut of a talented- yes, staggeringly talented- new writer.’ -Michiko Kakutani, The New York Times
This is from the cover.
‘For 40 years readers have been
waiting around on J. D. Salinger to send down a new manuscript from high atop
his reclusive Vermont mountain. Well, the vigil is over and we can forget about
hearing from Salinger. He’s been replaced by a stunning new writer. His name
is Dave Eggers.’ -Tampa Tribune
Need I remind the potential reader that Salinger was the sire of the genre that ultimately led to Eggers?
exactly is ‘gorgeous conviction’, Sweetcakes? Translation- I haven’t a
clue how to praise this crap. Let me open up a dictionary and pick the first 2
words that make any sort of sense.
‘Eggers unfailingly captures the reader with gorgeous conviction.’ -Lynn Crosbie, The Toronto Star
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the 7/31 edition of The Manifest.]
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