NY Times’ Neil Genzlinger vs. Jill Ker Conway

An article in January 30th’s New York Times Book Review set off a wave of polite indignation on the Association of Personal Historians‘ listserv. In “The Center of Attention” staff editor Neil Genzlinger waxed peevish about the number of mediocre memoirs in print and “the lost art of shutting up.” He listed four concerns:

  1. That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir.
  2. No one wants to relive your misery.
  3. If you’re jumping on a bandwagon, make sure you have better credentials than the person already on it.
  4. If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important person in it.

The gist of the APH listserv discussion was that Neil missed the point–that everyone has a story that is important to their family,  friends,  and future generations of their family.

You could say the APHers missed the point–that Neil was only talking about people who choose to publish their memoirs for the public. But I think there’s something quite interesting going on here.

I am currently reading  Jill Ker Conway’s book When Memory Speaks: Reflections on Autobiography. In the first chapter she poses, and answers, the question, “Why is autobiography so popular today?” I will let her make the rebuttal to Neil:

We experience life from a single point of view. We want to know how the world looks from inside another person’s experience. When that craving is met by a convincing narrative, we find it deeply satisfying.

The satisfaction comes from being allowed inside the experience of another person who really lived and who tells about experiences which did in fact occur. In this way…the reader is able to try on the experience of another, just as one would try on a dress or a suit of clothes, to see what the image in the mirror then looks like. We like to try on new identities because our own crave the confirmation of like experience, or the enlargement or transformation which can come from viewing a similar experience from a different perspective. When we read about totally disparate experience (as in the life of a Catholic priest) it is as though the set designer and the lighting specialist had provided us with a totally different scene and pattern of light and shadows to illuminate the stage on which we live our lives.

I appreciate Neil’s points; if we want to publish our life stories, we bear the responsibility of writers in all genres–our work must good. Work that doesn’t “illuminate the stage” of a particular life will have value for the family, friends, and next generations, but not for the rest of us.

But I revel in Jill’s point–that memoir is a deeply satisfying  genre for readers.

We humans share a craving to get inside others’ experience, both those that are familiar to us and those that are so disparate they reveal a world we have no other way to know. If you don’t write your memoir, you deprive me of the opportunity to see how your life might illuminate mine.

-Sarah White

Illustration by Timothy Goodman for the New York Times.

About first person productions

My blog "True Stories Well Told" is a place for people who read and write about real life. I’ve been leading life writing groups since 2004. I teach, coach memoir writers 1:1, and help people publish and share their life stories.
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3 Responses to NY Times’ Neil Genzlinger vs. Jill Ker Conway

  1. Noemi says:

    Great points! I will follow his advice.


  2. Pingback: Truth in Memoir (who will you hurt?) | True Stories Well Told

  3. Pingback: Book Review: Shalom Auslander’s “Foreskin’s Lament” | True Stories Well Told

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