Riverhead: 292 pp., $25.95
In 2006, when James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces” was exposed as a fraud, the news was met with the self-righteousness and scorn typically reserved for Ponzi schemers. Ever since, Frey’s name has been invoked with the arrival of every challenged memoir -- and they arrive regularly, our mounting suspicion having done little to quench our appetite for the form.
As Ben Yagoda ably demonstrates in his spirited “Memoir: A History,” the difficulty of defining and identifying “the truth” certainly didn’t begin with Frey. The reading public has always put a premium on stories we believe to be true, and writers have responded accordingly. Some of the self-representations that have attracted the most attention -- Frey’s, for instance, or Margaret Seltzer’s invented “Love and Consequences” -- have been knowingly false, insidiously ego-driven. But many more authors strive to present a sincere, if individualized, version of the facts, adapting the genre to their own ends.
There have, of course, always been spiritual autobiographies, as well as “misery memoirs” and personal accounts written by (or credited to) politicians and celebrities. More recently, Yagoda -- the author of a biography of Will Rogers, as well as several books about writing -- notes a spike in memoirs about dogs, addiction, fatherhood and autism, along with the irrepressible insta-memoir phenomenon of “shtick lit” (in which a writer sets out to do something with the express purpose of writing about it). He reels off hundreds of examples, leaving the pages of his book riddled with italicized titles. It’s exhausting but effective, revealing a genre distinguished by both its impressive diversity and its depressing sameness.
Although Yagoda highlights what many memoirs have in common, he also discovers plenty of redeeming originality. With a novelistic style and attention to its author’s troubled childhood, Edmund Gosse’s “Father and Son: A Study of Conflicting Temperaments” (1907) broke “the impasse of the Victorian autobiography.” In “The Promised Land” (1912), Mary Antin, a Russian Jew who immigrated to the U.S., wrote movingly: “It is because I understand my history, in its larger outlines, to be typical of many, that I consider it worth recording.”
Later came such singular memoirs as Gertrude Stein’s “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas,” James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club” and Dave Eggers’ “A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius,” all connected by stylistic innovation and their authors’ dedication to be as honest as they could be, even as they acknowledged the inherent subjectivity of the form.
It seems incredible in our age of obsessive fact-checking, but until the early 1700s, “truth was of a general quality; it wouldn’t have occurred to anyone that every detail happened precisely as described.” In 1719, when Daniel Defoe published his novel “The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe, of York, Mariner” -- with a subtitle identifying the book as having been “Written by Himself” -- it marked a drastic shift in the way people approached literature. That book broke ground for a deluge of novels that seemed like memoirs, and autobiographies that read like fiction. With these changes came a greater need for critical readers.
The values of a period are inevitably reflected in its memoirs. Once, most writers chose to publish autobiographical material posthumously, insisting that this was the only way they could responsibly tell the truth.
In the 1600s, religious “confessions” abounded. Captivity narratives thrived in the 19th century. Countless tragedies and adversities -- slavery, the World Wars, the Holocaust -- have fostered their own autobiographical sub-genres. Some writers, like Elizabeth Cady Stanton in 1898, positioned their memoirs as testimonials in support of a cause; some books, like Elie Wiesel’s “Night” (1958), weren’t embraced until years after their publication. In the postwar era, readers initially favored uplifting accounts of daily life, until Tobias Wolff’s brilliant, game-changing “This Boy’s Life,” which, Yagoda suggests, helped kick off the contemporary memoir boom when it was published in 1989. Yagoda also credits Wolff with first using the word “memoir” as it is now commonly applied.
The best memoirists, Yagoda observes, have “been aware of the moral ambiguity of the enterprise, and implicated themselves as much as or more than anyone else.” The myth of a memoir that is 100% true is just that, but there’s a big difference between works genuinely based on faded recollections and impressions and those that employ outright fakery. All of us have faulty, unreliable memories, vulnerable to outside influences and subconscious revisionism: That’s part of what a memory -- and, by extension, a memoir -- is. Yagoda points out that familiar questions about veracity can be traced back nearly as far as the written word, and it’s startling to realize how slow we’ve been to absorb their lessons. Still, there’s something sweet and surprising about our continued desire to take people at their word.
Despite the necessary skepticism Yagoda brings to his subject, it’s clear that he comes to the memoir with deep respect. Ultimately, we care about memoirs because we crave stories. So long as we value them, we’ll continue to grapple with questions about what they mean. Yagoda’s incisive exploration is a worthy study of a genre that even now cannot completely be defined.
Loeb is a writer in New York.