On The Appeal Of The Memoir

One of the realities that is easy enough to face as a reader is that there is a huge supply of memoirs for a reader to read and review. It is not very difficult to account for the large supply of memoirs. In our given day and age, a substantial portion of the population (including this writer) are of the fervent belief that their experiences and their perspective are worth sharing with the world. And while an autobiography depends on having personal fame and in being a person interesting enough that people will care about one’s life and achievements (a difficult standard to meet for those of us whose lives and names are obscure), a memoir simply depends on having an interesting enough context to provide for one’s life. And this is not a high standard to meet, as the experience of trauma is judged itself to be sufficient to have a story to tell to the world, as can be attested by the simply massive amount of genres relating to PTSD and child abuse and related issues that I have read, a genre which I have, it must be admitted, contributed to with my own writing as well.

All of this is easy enough to account for. What does require at least some justification is the appeal of the memoir to readers. There would not be so many memoirs so easily accessible to others if there was not some interest in them by others. Publishers keep publishing these books, after all, and would not do so if there was not some market for it. Sometimes this is extremely easy and straightforward to do. For example, the memoirs and autobiographies of celebrities are easy to understand the appeal of even when the books are obviously self-serving and frequently lead one to like and appreciate an author far less than one would upon knowing less about them and their dark deeds and pathetic attempts at self-justification. On the other hand, the memoirs of more obscure people offer compensating virtues that the memoirs of the famous do not have, and that is the similarity of the life of the memoir writer and the memoir reader, where the self-justifications of the memoir writer can easily serve as the self-justifications of the memoir reader in their own attempts to understand their lives and defend their choices to others.

In my personal, and admittedly biased opinion, it is the fuel that memoirs serve to the attempts at justification and self-defense of the reader that serve as the principal appeal of memoirs to the reader. There is no shortage of aspects of life that memoir writers can talk about that allows the reader a chance to feel better about their own lives and to feel as if they are not alone. A great many memoirs exist that talk about dysfunctional personal and family backgrounds including but not limited to the experience of the horrors of war, imprisonment, child abuse, broken family backgrounds, rape, abusive relationships, the struggle with substance about and other addictions, and numerous mental health issues that seem to accompany such unpleasant aspects of life. This is not even discussing the many memoirs that deal with such issues as racism, poverty, and sexuality that seek to deflect personal responsibility for poor life choices onto supposedly structural problems within society itself that a great many readers will be able to identify with. Even in the most successful of lives in this fallen world, people will live with regrets, and have some aspect of their lives that is broken as a result of sin, the sins of others against ourselves that harm our existence and our sins against others that must be owned up to or justified or explained away.

The memoir offers the chance to explain and to explain away, and in this case the need of the author and the need of the reader are intricately related. As most of us are at least somewhat self-absorbed creatures, the appeal of the memoir to allow us the chance to frame our life story as we wish it to be understood by others is for many of us (myself included) an irresistible lure. On the other hand, memoirs can provide an alibi or a justification for the reader that makes it appealing for others as well. We may not feel confident in our abilities of self-expression, or may lack a wide audience for our own attempts at self-justification and judicious reframing of our existence, but reading a well-written memoir can help us to form our own capacity for explaining and justifying ourselves, and that is frequently well worth the time and effort that it takes to read a memoir. Of course, where we do not agree with the self-justification strategies of the author, our opinions of memoirs are often far less kind. Even here, though, it is useful and appealing to know what strategies for justification and explanation will simply not pass muster with ourselves, even as it is worthwhile for us to understand those appeals that we are likely to use in order to defend ourselves from judgment and censure.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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