Which book would you rather read -- the autobiography of a former first lady, or yet another Vietnam memoir, this one by a moderately well-known literature professor at a Northeastern university?
Perhaps an excerpt from each book would help.
This from "Barbara Bush," her recently published autobiography, being in the same room with George Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev:
"Imagine sitting in a room with the two Presidents of the most powerful countries in the world -- and being married to one of them."
Now this from Tobias Wolff's "In Pharoah's Army," also recently published, in which he acknowledges he was a lousy officer:
"I was completely incompetent to lead a Special Forces team. This was adamant fact, not failure of nerve. . . . I wanted out, but I lacked the courage to confess my incompetence as the price of getting out. I was ready to be killed, even, perhaps, get others killed, to avoid that humiliation."
Each book aspires to give the reader a close-up look at the author, but there are notable differences. Despite indifferent reviews, Barbara Bush's book is high on the best-seller lists. Mr. Wolff's book probably will never make one, though it's gotten mostly superb reviews. But it's likely that in 10 years Mr. Wolff's book will be remembered more than Mrs. Bush's, because it resonates with powerful human emotion.
"In Pharoah's Army" is a prime example of the literary memoir -- vivid, achingly personal. A memoir takes a specific time and puts it into focus -- such as childhood, perhaps, or a time in another country. Much like Mr. Wolff's first memoir, the acclaimed "This Boy's Life," "In Pharoah's Army" is close to the bone. Mr. Wolff does not try to hide his fears, his anxieties. He freely acknowledges that when he served in Vietnam in the late 1960s, he had very simple goals. He wanted to get out, and to get out in one piece.
That intensity is at the heart of a good memoir.
"At its best," says William Zinsser, author of "Inventing the Truth," a study of the memoir form, "a book will select a particular time and amplify it. The greatness of Russell Baker's 'Growing Up' is not just that it's the story of a boy and his mother, but it's also about the severe hardships of the Depression. It's a window of a life."
Don't tell much
"Barbara Bush," though, is the epitome of the current celebrity autobiography -- promising to reveal the intimate side of a very public person, but ultimately giving the reader little. It gushes, it tap-dances around uncomfortable situations (speculation about Mr. Bush's role in the Iran-contra affair is called "the darnest allegations").
Still, "Barbara Bush" is no different from other recent celebrity autobiographies. Read the reviews of books by Marlon Brando, John Denver, Dolly Parton and Burt Reynolds and the same complaint emerges: They're not telling us anything.
But there have been any number of excellent memoirs out -- some from people you've never heard of, or from people you wouldn't think you'd be interested in.
No longer is the memoir considered the province of primarily the man or woman of letters (Henry Adams, Mark Twain) or historical figures (Benjamin Franklin, U.S. Grant). Indeed, given the many examples that have come out in recent years, it can be argued that we're in a golden age of the memoir.
"There's no question that we're in a more fruitful time for memoirs than any I can recall," says Mr. Zinsser. "It's an extremely important form of making sense of our lives, of who we are and who we once were."
Memoirs released this fall indicate just how wide the range can be. Jill Ker Conway, president of Smith College, had her second book of memoirs published ("True North"). Author Max Apple ("The Oranging of America") offers an unusual memoir in "Roommates" -- it's the story of how his grandfather, at the age of 103, became head of the family.
Houghton Mifflin published "Autobiography of a Face," a heart-breaking account of a woman dealing with a disfiguring cancer ("the eyes of these perfectly formed children swiftly and deftly bored into the deepest part of me").
Written by Lucy Grealy, a relatively unknown poet, "Autobiography of a Face" was published with a modest first printing of about 10,000. But through strong reviews and word of mouth, about 50,000 books are now in print, according to Gail Winston, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin.
What favors a memoir over the celebrity autobiography, Ms. Winston says, is that "it's about writing. Some celebrity bios aren't even written by the celebrity, and most readers know that. In a memoir, you get the intimacy of the voice -- there is no comparison with the celebrity books. Houghton Mifflin does not publish celebrity bios exactly for that reason."