Writing in The New York Times in 2011, Neil Genzlinger bemoans “the problem of memoirs,” opening with this notable illustration by Timothy Goodman. Genzlinger is ostensibly reviewing four recently-published memoirs, but he spends most of his time elaborating on four principles for would-be memoirists: that you had parents and a childhood does not qualify you to write a memoir; readers don’t want to “relive your misery”; don’t jump on the memoir bandwagon just because it’s there; and “if you must write a memoir make sure you are the least important person in it.”
This is not bad advice, but potential memoir writers seem not to have heeded it. In 2011, Genzlinger notes that if you want to browse memoirs on Amazon, you better be in a comfy chair since you will get 60 to 120,000 “hits” depending on how you search. Today the number is even greater.
Why the avalanche of memoirs? Genzlinger attributes it to “me-ism,” an age of narcissism. While there is no doubt some truth in that assertion (pretty much all of us, after all, like to talk about ourselves), I think it ignores other important factors. I first noticed the huge uptick in memoirs about 20 years ago and often commented on it and discussed it with my students. After years of worrying the issue, we came up with two factors that seemed to be associated with the rise of this particular genre. First is the resistance to what Lisa Ede and I have called “radical individualism” by theorists of many different stripes, who point out that the long-held assumption that we were the “masters of our fates, the captains of our souls” is belied at every turn, that we are rather shaped by forces far beyond our control. Hence “the death of the author” and the concept of “author functions” that so exercised theorists in the 80s.
These were frightening concepts to many, and the ensuing culture wars stirred up passions on all sides. Feminist rhetoricians and compositionists noted a bitter irony: just at a time when women and people of color were able to come to voice, establishment theorists told them that such voices were really constructions, not results of their own agency. And many in society at large felt vaguely that the concept of selfhood as they had known it for centuries was called into question.
In addition, the 21st century brought with it enormous advances in artificial intelligence and robotics, moves that presaged something like the industrial revolution on steroids, with huge categories of jobs being taken over by machines. As I write, Andrew Yang, an entrepreneur running for the Democratic presidential nomination, is criss-crossing the country, demonstrating in graphic detail how many jobs—indeed entire professions—are already being taken over by robots and other machines and talking about how to “save jobs from automation” while at the same time facing the necessity of introducing a guaranteed monthly income for all.
These changes are threatening on an existential level—to many, they threaten the sense not only of self but of self-worth. In such times, it is no wonder that we see signs of writers trying to reclaim a traditional sense of self, of saying with every new memoir published, “Here I am. Look at me. I count. I really count.”
Students today are caught in this maelstrom of change, this industrial revolution on steroids. But far too little of what they talk about and study in college acknowledges these realities or engages students in responding productively to them. That doesn’t need to be true of writing programs and courses, however. We are well positioned to tackle these issues with our students, to engage them in tracing challenges to traditional notions of the self as well as technological change in order to better understand the relationship between the two. We are also well positioned to ask students to write about their own relationship to these issues. They might even decide to do a bit of memoir-writing themselves, focusing throughout not on ME ME ME but on how to understand self always in a web of contextual relationships that includes other people as well as other important factors in their environments, including machines with which (or whom?) they may well find themselves engaged in more ways than they can imagine.
To pursue these ends, teachers of writing might well begin with a recent essay in Rhetoric Society Quarterly: “The Ethics of Memoir: Ethos in Uptake.” In this essay, Katherine Mack and Jonathan Alexander show how the concept of ethos “illuminates memoir’s rhetorical potency and its dubious ethics,” noting particularly the way that the over-personalization of memoir bemoaned by Genzlinger can yield to a critique that insistently embeds the ethos of the memoirist within “larger social, cultural, and political debates” like those I have been describing. Mack and Alexander put their recommendation into very good practice in an analysis of two very recent memoirs, J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. They conclude that we need many more critical studies of memoirs and especially in the context of “uptake,” that is, how readers “talk back” to them: “At a time when the ‘personal’ and ethos are used to justify a variety of often contradictory positions, a revitalized study of the genres of the personal, such as memoir, and their rhetorical deployment, strikes us as more pressing than ever” (68).
Mack and Alexander’s astute analysis will give teachers of writing a lot to think about—and provide another way to engage students in examining, critically, the “problem of memoirs.”
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