Memoir continues to overwhelm history and biography to be the most popular genre in this section of the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2013. We have received over forty reviews of memoirs this year, exceeding the combined total of histories and biographies reviewed.
This month James Tierney and Bree reviewed a memoir that focuses on the issues of autism, Boomer & Me by Jo Case. It shows the value of one book being reviewed multiple times as their reviews are quite different but both very interesting. James shared some interesting insights about memoirs in his review:
Memoirs are tricky beasts. They sell, but the strong imperative willing them into existence is too often the subject alone, with seemingly little interest in turning out a finished piece of writing. The number of second-hand memoirs that can be found in second-hand bookstores with an ‘OK – I get it’ bookmark marooned at the halfway mark is evidence enough of that.
We have probably all read that type of memoir. The author recognises that they have an interesting story to relate and merely seek to inform the reader rather than to make the book sing with beautiful writing.
The flip side of this is the reader. As a reader of nonfiction I have noticed that I will be attracted to a book firstly by the topic it covers and then by the depth of research shown. If a book passes those tests I bring it home to read. However, a truly great nonfiction book must have a third element – excellent writing. Time and again I slog through a book, fascinated by the topic, impressed by the quality research but ruing the tedious writing style. For this reason I cheered when I read Kitty’s War by Janet Butler this month. The high quality of Butler’s writing makes this deeply researched biography of a nurse serving close to the frontline in World War I a riveting read.
James continues, “[i]t is also true that memoirs are excused their less crafted elements by their proximity to veracity. Life is allowed to be lumpy and plain words are seen as closer to the plain truth.
This is always the tease of memoir – it promises us an insight into truth. We hear directly from the subject themselves; they were there, a witness to their lives unlike the biographer. The unpolished nature of the writing reinforces the message to the reader that we are not receiving this story third-hand but from one of the participants themselves.
James talks about the “proximity to veracity”, thus recognising that the memories of the person writing are the truth as that person knows it long after the event, but can they be regarded as a reliable account of the past? The memoir is often written years after the events occurred. Since then the memories of the writer have been revised many times, the edges may have been taken off difficult experiences or hindsight and knowledge of other matters not known at the time may have changed the author’s attitudes to past events.
Historians prefer to use documentary evidence that is recorded around the time an incident occurred rather than relying on sometimes faulty memories of events from years past. Yet history too is an approximation of the truth. Some things occur that are never documented. Even if events were recorded sometimes the documents are lost or damaged. The person recording the incident may have been clouded by misconceptions or prejudices.
This month Marilyn Brady reviewed a book that is a combination of a memoir and history. “A superb history and memoir written as a dialogue between an Australian Indigenous elder and a prize-winning novelist who share some of the same ancestors” is how Marilyn Brady describes Kayang & Me by Kim Scott and Hazel Brown. She further states that, “… it is a must-read for all who care about inter-cultural understanding and all who want to explore the changing awareness of historians, professional or personal, with their subjects”.
Historians in the past lived in a different cultural world to historians living today and this affects the histories they write. An historian writing about nineteenth century Aboriginal history in the 1950s would write about it quite differently to an historian living today. An historian living fifty years into the future are also likely to write about the same topic differently again. Historians endeavour to understand the past on its own terms but inevitably the different cultural environment in which the historian lives affects the types of questions they may ask and the interpretation of the evidence.
Earlier Marilyn commented on my blog, “I love memoirs because they so honestly occupy the contested ground between fact and fiction; between memory and history”. Further, she says:
…individuals… tell not only what happened but how an author experienced and thought about what happened. Some of the best use the experience of writing a memoir to reassess their lives and tell us how they felt about something in the past and how they view it now.
The process of writing a memoir offers the author an opportunity to reflect on their lives, to dig deep and understand themselves. Yet it is not just a private, personal exercise. The author is communicating with the reader through the memoir. The appeal of the memoir is that the subject is talking intimately with us without an intermediary intervening and interpreting what they say. The intimacy of the memoir is reflected in Kate Belle’s review of Nikki Stern’s memoir, Not your Ordinary Housewife. Kate developed a close affinity with the author, “[m]ore than once I wanted to reach into the pages, take Nikki by the shoulders and scream ‘NO! JUST SAY NO! He’s too gutless to kill himself’”, says Kate in her review.
The genres of history, biography and memoir all aspire to communicate a truth but using different approaches. However, these books are not just vehicles for truth; they are an author’s communication device. For this reason in our reviews we should not only be reflecting on whether the topic is interesting and the research is sufficient. We need to comment on whether the writing effectively conveys the story. More than this we should celebrate those books which combine the three – deep analysis, solid evidence and quality writing.
Over to you… what appeals to you about memoirs?
You can read all the reviews of histories, biographies and memoirs written for the Australian Women Writers’ Challenge in 2013 here.
I’m Yvonne Perkins. For the last few years I have been working as a research assistant on a variety of historical projects one of which was an investigation of the history of teaching reading in Australia. Currently I am researching the beliefs, religious or otherwise, of soldiers who served in World War I. In my spare time I enjoy reading history and writing about it on my blog, Stumbling Through the Past. I can also be found @perkinsy on twitter.