THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr (author of The Liar’s Club)

[NOTE: Having just finished editing two massive and interesting/ well written memoirs, ‘The Art of Memoir’ by Mary Karr is of immense interest to me. Questions are raised that can’t be answered conclusively, yet they must be raised. Very intelligent review, most worth reading and pondering! — MJL.   By GREGORY COWLESOCT. 23, 2015 NYT]


Why not say what happened? All right, then: St. Augustine stole some pears. Kathryn Harrison had sex with her father. Tobias Wolff didn’t do much of anything to disturb his sleep, it would seem, but he still managed to turn his boyhood into beautiful, reflective music.

The vogue for memoir, like all vogues, comes and goes. But the impulse perseveres. Celebrities, addicts, abuse victims, politicians, soldiers, grieving children: Every­one has a story to tell and a conviction that the world wants to hear it — and often enough, if the best-seller lists are any indication, the world does.

Mary Karr has told three stories the world wanted to hear. In “The Liars’ Club” (1995), she wrote about her hardscrabble Texas upbringing, including her rape by a neighborhood boy and molestation by a babysitter; in “Cherry” (2000), about her adolescent coming-of-age; and in “Lit” (2009), about her adult recovery from alcoholism and embrace of Catholicism. (Given the inherently confessional nature of memoir, it may be no coincidence that so many of its most successful practitioners have been Catholic to some degree — Karr, Wolff, Harrison and of course Augustine, but also Mary ­McCarthy, David Carr, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Frank McCourt — or that even non-Catholic memoirists slip so easily into the churchly narrative of penitence and redemption.)

All three of Karr’s memoirs have been best sellers, and for 25 years she has taught literature and creative writing at Syracuse University. So she would seem as well positioned as anybody in our selfie-­besotted age to explain the art of memoir, which is just what she sets out to do in her new book, plainly titled “The Art of Memoir.” It is not, alas, a very good book. Repetitive, unorganized, unsure of its audience or tone, it can’t decide whether it wants to be a how-to guide or a work of critical analysis. I would have voted for analysis myself, partly because Karr proves to be an excellent reader of other people’s work and partly because the genre doesn’t readily lend itself to the reductive prescriptions of how-to: There’s no one way to write a memoir, any more than there is one way to live a life.

Karr recognizes this — “Every writer worth her salt is sui generis,” she concedes at the outset — and she seems a bit hamstrung by it. On the advice front, she pads the book with chipper lists and pop quizzes and general encouraging bromides. Her most insistent tip is the somewhat tepid suggestion that aspiring memoirists keep their work “carnal,” by which she means not sexual (despite the obvious commercial advantages that might bring) but grounded in details that appeal to the senses. For most writers that’s decent advice, if not especially revelatory, but for memoirists it runs headlong into another of Karr’s sensible, seemingly unobjectionable guidelines: the injunction not to make things up.

“Deceit in memoir irks me so badly,” she complains. “It’s the busted liars who talk most volubly about the fuzzy line between nonfiction and fiction. Their ­anything-goes message has come to dominate the airwaves around memoir” — an outcome that, for Karr, has moral as well as literary implications: “The popular, scoffing presumption that memory’s solely concocted by self-serving fantasy and everyone’s trying to scudge has perhaps helped to bog down our collective moral machinery.”

It’s true that fabricated memoirs have taken a lot of heat in recent years, and rightly so. But all of the shouting about James Frey and Margaret Seltzer and their ilk tends to obscure an essential, elementary point: Everybody is, in fact, trying to scudge. Even nonfraudulent memoirs, by scrupulous writers making good-faith efforts to reconstruct their pasts, are by nature unreliable — as tenuous and conditional and riddled with honest error as memory itself. And done right, that’s exactly what makes them so thrilling.

By Mary Karr

229 pp. Harper/HarperCollins Publishers. $24.99.

Gregory Cowles is an editor at the Book Review.


About Margaret Jean Langstaff

A lifelong critical reader with literary tastes, a novelist, short story writer, essayist, book critic, and professional book editor for many years. A consultant to publishers and authors, providing manuscript critiques and a full range of editorial services. A friend and supporter of all other readers and writers. A collector of signed modern first editions. Animal lover and tree hugger. Follow me on Twitter @LangstaffEditor
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8 Responses to THE ART OF MEMOIR by Mary Karr (author of The Liar’s Club)

  1. dgkaye says:

    Interesting review of Karr’s book. I’ve read a few interesting reviews of this book, and as it stares at me from my bookshelf every time I walk by, I can’t wait to get through the books I’ve promised to read so I can get to it. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m a messy reader, I have 3-5 going at the same time. Wonder what that means? I get them all read eventually. Probably dates from when I was doing so many book reviews for mags and newspapers. It does stave off the burden of guilt of walking by an uncracked book you know that you must read eventually. Professional reviewers have an inside joke: they don’t “read” books, they “rape” them, sometimes starting in the middle or at the end and then jumping around until they’ve finished. This developed because so many writers take so long to get to the point, or as the saying goes, waste a lot of time “clearing their throats.” Many acquiring editors and publishers do the same thing! and to think the author spends so much careful, deliberative time writing them (some anyway) Haha It was common practice at Publishers Weekly when I was there for 11 years, everyone deplored it, but it was necessary to get the work done. Too many books to read leisurely and quietly/reflectively. Keep that in mind when you read a book review in a major periodical. Some reviewers never finish the books they have to review, not enough time, and hate themselves for it! Tattle tales. I’ll get chastised for this at the very least.

      Liked by 2 people

      • dgkaye says:

        Wow! Margaret thanks so much for sharing this intimate info. It really is sad on many counts, yet almost understandable. Perhaps they shouldn’t take on more work than they can honestly handle in order to review fairly. It’s almost as though a writer is caught between the proverbial rock and hard place; paint a wonderful story by building interest, showing the intimate details to feed the reader’s imagination – to create story, or cut to the chase, bore the readers for ease of publishers. Not inspiring. 😦


        • The best tactics writers can use is to make the first paragraphs knockouts, grab the reviewer there. Then he/she will start flipping through chapter to chapter, fast, looking for things that really jump off the page, are gems. If they are suitably impressed, they actually may slow down and read the book carefully. You need to prove to them in a very few words that it’s worth their time to read it through closely. Think about it it; they encounter so much poorly written “crap” and simply can’t waste precious time on it at the expense of the good books. This is not new. Routine reviewer approach and initial assessment of new books for hundreds of years.

          Liked by 1 person

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