3 Memoirs That Should Not Have Been Written and 1 That Was OK

As stated in the NY Times Book Review this past Sunday there are many memoirs not worth reading. The reviewer, Neil Genzlinger is pretty harsh as he admits. He starts out ranting about how in this world of over sharing, ordinary lives should not be written about. He has rules for memoirists, namely that you needed be a noteworthy person, having an extremely unusual experience or being a brilliant writer. He gives three as examples of what is not worth reading, and one example that is.

Depending on how you play it when you search under memoirs in Amazon you could get over 160,000 hits. I had known memoir writing was popular, I had no idea it was such a bloated genre.

The three memoirs not worth reading are:

  1. -“Disaster Preparedness” by Heather Havrilesky is the first picked for being too ordinary. He claims her life was just “too bland”.
  2. -“The Things That Need Doing” by Sean Manning is chosen because it’s an ordeal to read. Manning writes about every medicine, intubation and diaper change his mother went through, seeming to “ask for congratulations for himself as he takes care of her.”
  3. -“Twin” by Allen Shawn is a memoir about autism that could have stayed in the slush pile along with many other books on autism Genzlinger says. And this one is particularly bad because the author doesn’t know anything about his sister with autism since she was institutionalized. Yes institutionalized. He visits from time to time and apparently doesn’t have any perspective on why institutionalization is a bad thing to do. There is no real insight into his or his twin’s life.

The one example of a memoir worth reading was “An Exclusive Love” by Johanna Adorjan translated by Anthea Bell. The book is a “beautiful exploration of why her grand parents killed themselves.” What made it worth reading was that she kept herself out of the lime light and brought her grand parents into focus a little bit at a time, so that it was like a discovery.

My about page says I am in the process of making my journals into a public writing. This article made me cringe. It certainly got the critic voices talking in my head It makes me wonder what do I have so special other readers would want to hear about. But that’s for another post.

Do you agree that most memoirs are not worth reading? What for you makes a memoir worth reading?

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About ClaraBowmanJahn

Journal writer. Author of "Annie's Special Day" And coauthor of Edmund Pickle Chin, A Donkey Rescue Story." Proud mother and grandmother of wonderful kids. Wife of brilliant husband. Servant of two cats. Member of Pennwriters and SCBWI.
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14 Responses to 3 Memoirs That Should Not Have Been Written and 1 That Was OK

  1. duke1959 says:

    Most of them are not worth the paper they are printed on. The ones I like are the ones that are written without reagrds to how many they are going to sell.

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    • clarbojahn says:

      I agree Duke. Although I did enjoy “lit” and ” She wasn’t there”. I’m not sure if the author intended they be on the best seller list or not. They read like novels and both authors had degrees in writing. That didn’t hurt.

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  2. widdershins says:

    Memoirs, like any story, need to be well written. Ann Frank was a young girl who diarised her inner thoughts, but it was how she wrote about them that created the story. A good writer can make just about anything interesting.

    A writer needs to know her craft, no matter what genre she writes in. How to structure scenes. Dialogue. World-building. Characters and plot. Story arcs. Show rather than tell, etc.

    I’ve read some great stories that are not about world-shaking events, they are contained within a small space, be that geographical, or time, or philosophical. But what they have in common is that they are well written.
    So Clar, you gotta ask yourself this one question, “Are you feeling lucky Punk?” …( Oops, wrong movie 🙂 Thank you Mr Eastwood)… ask yourself this, “Do I know my craft?”

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    • Clar says:

      Thank you Widder for seeing right through my questions of how insecure I am in writing my memoirs. I am learning my craft as fast as I can. I am taking classes and reading as much about it as I can absorb. I am reading craft books and memoirs. I think I can tell a good book from bad. So this is my second career, writing. Nursing was my first.

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  3. widdershins says:

    I was just reading C. Hope Clark’s blog and thanks to Serendipity, here’s what she had to say on this very topic…
    http://hopeclark.blogspot.com/2011/02/using-advertising-lessons-to-make-your.html

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    • Clar says:

      Those are all good points, written succinctly and in summary of what I have been learning. That is a good list to keep at the side of my writing area. Thanks

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  4. nrhatch says:

    Kelly Corrigan’s bestselling memoir, The Middle Place, is as much a celebration of life as it is her chronicle of battling breast cancer.

    Elizabeth Gilbert’s bestselling memoir, Eat Pray Love, is a delight-filled read full of spiritual insights.

    I loved them both.

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    • Clar says:

      Yes, I read “Eat, Pray, Love”, too. I read it before it became a best seller and loved it. I keep a copy as a mentor for my writing. I have books like that, that serve as my bible in writing. I haven’t read Kelly Corrigan’s, “The Middle Place” and will look for it in the library. Thank you for the suggestion.

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  5. I don’t beleive you have to be famous to write a good memoir. You do have to have a compelling story to tell and the ability to tell it well. It’s the difference between the bore everyone avoids at the party and the most ought after guest on everyone’s list.

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    • Clar says:

      Yes, I see your point. If all you hear is Me me me. It gets old pretty fast. Like Widder says, you have to know your craft. And I think you wrote about this in one of your blogs. You were after the repeated “I” so often in a book or essay. There are more ways to tell a story than to use the word “I” over and over.

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  6. Johanna Ash says:

    Memoirs are not my favorite reading, because most lives are ordinary. We are all given the same amount of time to live on this earth. We know we need community to live life to the fullest, and we recognize that for many of us, life and her choices are easier if we live towards a higher power. To me, to write a memoir and not be pompous, takes a talent that few have. I have never understood the difference between autobiography and memoir. I enjoy autobiographies more than memoirs.
    Either can be written well with techniques of description, or characterization of others, but it doesn’t seem to happen with memoirs as readily.
    Perhaps it has to do with the “hook”: the first few sentences that entice the reader to continue. Ego-centrism is dull,because we all believe we are special. Where one person’s life may be interesting, or their experience is informative, that hook has to deliver the reason why only that particular work will be the one that deserves reading. The competition for all entertainment media is a tough one.

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  7. clarbojahn says:

    Hi Johanna,
    Thank you for your comment. It is a multifaceted one. An autobiography is different than a memoir in that an autobiography can have footnotes and is based on fact where a memoir is based on one’s memories and each person has there own memories of an event or episode.

    Yes, ego-centrism is dull, that’s why memoirs are a form of creative non-fiction, using fiction techniques to write a true life story. And yes, the hook is important in all writing.

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  8. jannatwrites says:

    I have to confess that I don’t read memoirs. Perhaps it could be because I like ‘lighter’ reading, and most memoirs are about someone overcoming difficulties or obstacles. I like the ‘lighter’ fiction reads because even if they go through awful things, I don’t get too caught up in the pain because I know it’s made up.

    There are plenty of people out there that do enjoy memoirs (I have a friend who does.) I don’t think the market should deter you from writing what’s in your heart.

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  9. Clar says:

    Thank you Janna,
    I have also overcome difficulties in my life that I want to write about in hopes someone will be inspired of learn from my trials. I wish I had your sense of humor that I could sprinkle in.

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