Making Sense of What Happened

At the end of her interview in the latest issue of the Paris Review, Mary Karr says, “We remember the bleakness. That’s mostly what we remember.” Isn’t that the truth, isn’t that the sad truth? And isn’t it just as sad to observe that most readers seem to be interested in those memoirs that tell the bleakest, most harrowing, most traumatic tales?

Mary Karr may be largely responsible for the autobiographical frenzy that has taken hold in this country since the late nineties. Her three memoirs, The Liars Club, Cherry, and most recently Lit have been wildly popular and have made their author a literary celebrity. She speaks in jaunty, colorful, and utterly blunt, fashion. In a way, she sounds a little like Holden Caulfield.

“By the time I wrote The Liar’s Club, it was off my fucking chest.” “Being a famous writer was a little like being a famous cocktail waitress—nobody dressed in diamonds.” “But reading is socially accepted disassociation. You flip a switch and you’re not there anymore. It’s better than heroin. More effective and cheaper and legal.”

She also exaggerates a great deal. “Books offer what TV and film often skip over—the internal and historical truths.” (Apologies to Bergman, Rohmer, Truffaut, Resnais, Godard, Antonini, Fellini, etc.) “When I went to California at seventeen, I wrote back to my sister saying, these people are boring because the weather’s so good they never had to develop an inner life.” (Apologies to T.C. Boyle, Alice Walker, Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Michael Chabon, Joan Didion, Dave Eggers, Robert Hass, Anne Lamont, Alice Sebold, Tobias Wolff, etc.)

In contrast, throughout the interview Karr also makes some smart observations about literature and the craft of writing. Like almost all writers she says it is critically important to rewrite ruthlessly and that most present day poetry is obscure, incomprehensible and has “ceased to perform its primary function which is to move the reader.”

When asked what she considered the biggest problems with memoirs today, she replied that they were not reflective enough. Here she is in agreement with the many critics of contemporary memoirs, writers like Vivian Gornick and Cristina Nehring who argue that all too many memoirists fail to extrapolative general insights about their personal experiences from their confessional accounts.

For example, in her May 2003 article in Harpers, Nehring comments about Montaigne’s personal essays: “He could examine his own reading and loving and cheating and hesitating, and deduce brave insights about the reading, loving, cheating, and hesitating of others.” She argues forcefully that autobiography at its best is a “series of engagements with issues, not simply self-absorption.”

In The Situation and the Story, Gornick puts it this way: the objective of memoir writing “to use my own response to a circumstance or event—as a means of making some larger sense of things.” And later in expressing the importance of what she calls developing an organizing principle, Gornick suggests:

“A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to life from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”

Whether or not Karr’s three memoirs meet this standard of truth will have to be decided by reading them. I confess that I have yet to do so, although I do strongly agree with Nehring and Gornick on the standard of merit to apply in judging a memoir. This may account for why I rarely read a memoir and why I rarely finish those that I do begin.