Self-indulgent trauma-trips curse today's memoir fads

Now, any yahoo can publish what used to be the preserve of famous people and real writers.

Books: The Argument

January 23, 2000|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

By now bookstores are so crammed with bad memoirs that the late literary editor Maxwell Perkins must be praying in his grave for an Alzheimer's pandemic. In some ways, the memoir has been to the last decade what the New Journalism was to the 1960s and '70s -- a definitive genre, a hybrid form, a craze even, of sorts.

The memoir has come into its own at the end of the 20th century, serving as a benchmark of this generation's loathsome literary self-consciousness in much the same way as Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" and Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic" were the baby-boomers' Bildungsromans.

But the similarity ends there. New Journalism was an unqualified art, and its practitioners -- accomplished scribblers all -- told newsworthy stories that mattered to everyone. The new memoir, conversely, isn't in itself an art, but rather a debasement of one.

Back when, only famous people and real writers wrote memoirs, and they didn't overexercise the privilege. Writers had the courtesy to fictionalize their dirty laundry, and hacks had the humility to keep their trauma-tripe to themselves. As for the celebrities, nobody expected less than pork chops from them. But now any yahoo with a word processor and a gripe can step up to the blank page and dish out the gruel on his pathetic life.

Like the dotty Delaney sisters, everyone is having his whiny say, and even the good writers have mostly turned into vindictive panderers. Suddenly it's literature as group therapy. It's victim culture meets total recall, and disclosure is the name of the blame.

It all unofficially started in 1992, when William Styron published "Darkness Visible" (Vintage, 84 pages, $10) -- his memoir about depression, which, come to think of it now, really just sounded like a bad trip to Paris. But, apparently, it struck a chord with bored housewives (the bulk of the book-buying public) and sired the age of the lurid woe-is-I "memwah."

As every slob with a grievance or a self-styled handicap quickly surmised, a popular memoir is a delicate melange of the grotesque and the numbingly mundane. Styron supplied the latter in abundance, garroting the reader with the vice grip of his mental deshabille. Other would-be writers took up the mantle of insanity and quickly followed Styron's suit.

Witness the next most famous memoir of the early '90s, Suzanna Kaysen's "Girl, Interrupted" (Vintage, 168 pages, $12) -- now a major motion picture. Little did we know then that this petite tale of woe about life in a Massachusetts mental ward was only the first bid in what would become a spirited auction for the coveted public prize of Most Maladjusted.

Later, Kaysen's ordeal would seem like a walk in the park compared with Mary Karr's "The Liar's Club" (Penguin, 320 pages, $12.95), a disturbing yarn about another harsh childhood that would, in turn, seem demure next to Kathryn Harrison's trump card: "The Kiss" (Random House, 207 pages, $ 11), the report of her incestuous affair with her father.

Along the way we were subjected to the slush pile of yet other contenders like NPR reporter Jackie Lyden's "Daughter of the Queen of Sheba" (Houghton Mifflin, 288 pages, $24) -- a lousy globule about growing up with a manic depressive mother -- and Maria Flook's equally snotty family saga about teen-age prostitution: "My Sister Life" (Pantheon, 368 pages, $25).

There was Elizabeth Wurtzel's best-selling "Prozac Nation" (Riverhead Books, 368 pages, $12.95), which, if nothing else, upped the collective ante on bad childhoods by cataloging perpetual adolescence in adulthood.

This led to other memoirs about adult eccentricity and dysfunction, drug-induced or otherwise, including: Caroline Knapp's best-selling "Drinking: A Love Story" (Delta, 286 pages, $12.95) -- alcoholism; Kay Redfield Jamison's "An Unquiet Mind" (Knopf, 223 pages, $26) -- manic depression; Marya Hornbacher's "Wasted" (HarperCollins, 298 pages, $13) -- anorexia; Deirdre McCloskey's "Crossing" (University of Chicago, 288 pages, $) -- transsexualism; and Mary Allen's "The Rooms of Heaven" (Knopf, 288 pages, $25) -- contacting dead loved ones with a Ouija board.

Throughout this onslaught there were the usual celebrity memoirs and, of course, the obligatory political soap-boxing. Remember Colin Powell's "My American Journey" (Random House, 643 pages, $25.95)? The furor over that one was so strong that generations to come are likely to think that the general ran for office and won. And who could forget Newt Gingrich's "To Renew America," if only because the poor man had to give back his publisher's multimillion-dollar advance?

Thereafter, we got a little revisionist history on Vietnam from former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara ("In Retrospect"), and, as usual, we heard ad nauseam from Henry Kissinger ("Diplomacy" and "Years of Renewal").

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