The memoir, always vulnerable to a gut-punch (too self-indulgent, too self-absorbed), has taken some extra licks lately. The James Frey fray, in particular, has occasioned much schadenfreudery in literary and not-so-literary circles, as the not-so-bad-as-he’d-like-to-be author of A Million Little Pieces has been outed as a fictionist, more wild in fantasy than in the life he alleged to be his own.
When a novel is bad, we toss it aside and search for another. But a bad memoir seems to call the whole genre into question, as if autobiography were, by definition, a doubtful enterprise. It is soggy with ethical ambiguity-what life, turned into “story,” also remains resolutely “nonfiction”? And while we’re at it, what exactly is “nonfiction”? As someone once said, memoir is really nonpoetry.
Yet the first-person voice has a valor-by turns tender and brash-that captivates. And it’s that clarion voice that tells the truth, conveying not simply a story but a mind trying to make sense of experience. The best memoirs-I want to say the most honorable ones-are really extended personal essays, books that attempt to sort out the lost loves of history, place, and childhood from the honest, if mystified, remove of a pondering adulthood.
Lynn Freed’s collection of personal essays, Reading, Writing, and...