On the joys of the writerly memoirWas Pippa Middleton the beginning of the end?
Penguin would have thought it a sure-fire win. An in-law of the royals (and not just any in-law, but the one the press nicknamed "Her Hotness" when she burst onto the scene at her sister's wedding to the second in line) imparts the secret of -- not curing the King's Evil, no, something much more 'of our time': brilliant parties year round. They handed Pippa a £400,000 advance, and she handed them Celebrate: a year of British festivities for family and friends. And it flopped! Only 2000 copies sold in its first week. In a nation of 65 million people! Plus the Commonwealth!
It wasn't the first celebrity title to flop -- earlier, a book by Alec Baldwin on fatherhood failed even more spectacularly, not surprisingly, I think you'll agree -- but maybe because of the personality in question, it was the first time I noticed the word "bubble" being used. When was the bubble going to burst on celebrity titles (most commonly memoirs, naturally, followed by -- you guessed it -- cookbooks)?
Well, it looks as if the answer may be 'Now'. With the 2014 sales figures totted up, and various biggies in the book industry weighing in, including the editor of The Bookseller, whose impeccable adjective they used in their headline, The Guardian reported ‘Exhausted’ readers shun celebrity memoirs as autobiography sales fall.
I, for one, am not disturbed at the idea that the self-indulgent celebrity memoir (which I once saw described as being either the ghostwritten account of 'How I got to be what I am', or ghostwritten advice on 'How you can get to be what I am') may be going into a tailspin.
The great memoir, on the other hand, is my working week and Sunday rest in this moment of my life. What makes a great memoir? I like what the American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates said: "Great memoir requires great courage and an appetite for sincere self-skepticism. To do this, you cannot fucking lie."
My appetite for memoir has become such that I'm even reading a book about the appetite for memoir, David Shields's Reality Hunger. Shields maintains that we are living in the Age of Memoir. "Urgency attaches itself now more to the tale taken directly from life than one fashioned by the imagination out of life", says Shields. "Novel qua novel is a form of nostalgia." I am not sure it is The age of the memoir - but it surely is My age of the memoir. In the sense of, my age. This was the theory also of Geoff Dyer, who was the first writer who drew my attention to this phenomenon -- he called it "Reader's block", though I learned in this book that he didn't invent the term, David Markson did -- of realising, after many years of gorging on them, that you're not getting excited any more about invented plots and invented characters.
Never say never (and I'm always still up for classics, maybe because characters like Becky Sharp -- Vanity Fair being the next I plan to read -- have by now become real, with quotation marks, pace Nabokov, and I'll be forever grateful to David Shields for bringing Nabokov's line to my attention) but right now, I'll take a good memoir over any other book, any time.
And if you are looking for a good memoir, you can't do better than a writerly memoir. Writers do it better! They know how to write, above all. But also, I am a big fan of how often they write a whole book on an aspect of their lives, rather than attempt to set down the whole shebang.
Here are the writerly memoirs I've got on my table right now:
Original, dreamlike, feminist: Things I don't want to know : a response to George Orwell's 1946 essay 'Why I write' by Deborah Levy, which ends
I rearranged the chair and sat at the desk. And then I looked at the walls to check out the power points so I could plug in my laptop. The hole in the wall nearest to the desk was placed above the basin, a precarious socket for a gentleman's electric razor. That spring in Majorca, when life was very hard and I simply could not see where there was to get to, it occurred to me that where I had to get to was that socket. Even more useful to a writer than a room of her own is an extension lead and a variety of adaptors for Europe, Asia and Africa.
Hypnotic, disquieting, hard-boiled: My dark places: an LA crime memoir by James Ellroy, in which "America's greatest crime writer investigates his mother's murder" -- and his obsession with it.
My father put me in a cab at the El Monte depot. He paid the driver and told him to drop me at Bryant and Maple. I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to leave my father. I wanted to blow off El Monte forever. It was hot--maybe ten degrees more than L.A. The driver took Tyler north to Bryant and cut east. He turned on Maple and stopped the cab. I saw police cars and official-type sedans parked at the curb. I saw uniformed men and men in suits standing in my front yard. I knew she was dead. This is not a revised memory or a retrospective hunch. I knew it in the moment--at age ten--on Sunday, June 22nd, 1958. I walked into the yard. Somebody said, "There's the boy." I saw Mr. and Mrs. Krycki standing by their back door. A man took me aside and kneeled down to my level. He said, "Son, your mother's been killed." I knew he meant "murdered."
Odd, intimate, witty: Revertigo : an off-kilter memoir by Floyd Skloot
I'm actually not sure if the whole book is odd, intimate and witty, as I haven't read it yet, but the last part, which I have read, is. Also touching and heart-breaking. It's about mothers, and memory, intense and intertwining subjects for anyone over a certain age. A family friend, leafing through an old "East End Temple Young Family Set" recipe book from the 1950s discovers that Skloot's mother, who had never cooked a day in her life, had contributed a recipe for Veal Italienne "Sklootini" to it.
From the moment I saw the recipe, I felt I had to cook it. As avid about cooking as my mother was about not cooking, I saw this as a chance to complete something for her. It would be a tribute to her intention, as I understood it, in submitting the recipe, in presenting herself as the kind of person who cooked such a dish.
Fierce, hilarious, astute: The Professor and Other Writings by Terry Castle
A whole 300+ pages of "autobiographical writings" which I'm reading for the second time, there's so much to enjoy: the famous "Desperately seeking Susan" recollection of Susan Sontag, "Travels with my mother" about taking her mother (who takes mournful pleasure in noting that Castle is beginning to resemble David Hockney) to see a Georgia O'Keeffe exhibition, and "My heroin Christmas", about a holiday spent under the spell of Art Pepper's Straight Life, a book whose Reality Hunger credentials I vouched for in a "What I'm Reading" from 2010.
Warm, frank, virtuosic: Inside a pearl by Edmund White
If you read lots of Edmund White, you may think you've already read this -- a book on Paris, love, sex, and, in general, being "the kind of guy who always wants to be elsewhere". I did. But no, it's new, and he's still in form, as in:
When I broke up with him (I found the rancid smell of menthol cigarettes daunting), all he did was warn me that I was getting old and should settle down before it was too late. "Tu viellies, Edmond," he hissed. If only he'd known how many more decades of gallantry lay before me. Which didn't stop a reporter from the London Times from calling me and asking me politely, with a nice Oxford stutter, what I thought of "intergenerational sex". I answered him sincerely and described my relationship with Michael, who's twenty-five years younger than me. A few days later, as we were about to board a plane to London, Michael opened a newspaper and found an article about ourselves headlined "The Frisky Old Goat Is Still At It".
Obsessive, personal, loving: Famous builder by Paul Lisicky
I've just noticed the first quote on the back is from none other than the Frisky Old Goat. "This book shows all the vital signs of genius. In Famous builder Paul Lisicky asks the tragic American question: who are you if you've recreated yourself? And he answers it: you are alone, vulnerable and fully loaded."
"Lisicky." What? I try to project my name toward the ridged roof of my mouth. I try to keep my jaw loose, my eyes animated, secure. I think: Smith, Stevens, Bishop. "Li-sick-y," I say again. "Paul Lisicky." How do you spell that? I note the hushed quality of the bank teller's voice, the tender, quizzical lift of her penciled-in brow. She leans in closer to me, palms flattened against the counter as if I've just told her my condition is terminal.
And for those of you who like the classics
Down and Out in Paris and London by George Orwell
I can point to one or two things I have definitely learned by being hard up. I shall never again think that all tramps are drunken scoundrels, nor expect a beggar to be grateful when I give him a penny, nor be surprised if men out of work lack energy, nor subscribe to the Salvation Army, nor pawn my clothes, nor refuse a handbill, nor enjoy a meal at a smart restaurant. That is a beginning.