“Memoirs are just one form of word delivery. It’s all inquiry, expression, a search to connect. To honestly recognize our mortal selves in others.”
Marc Nieson (Schoolhouse)
A few weeks ago I thought Steven Petite was spot-on in explaining that the distinction between genre and literary fiction is based on the kind of experience the reader is seeking. If a novel’s purpose is for entertainment/escape — it’s genre fiction. If its purpose is, as Marc Nieson phrased it, to help us “honestly recognize our mortal selves in others”– it’s literary fiction.
“Some contemporary mysteries are written beautifully and are character-driven (one of my best examples is Louise Penney’s mysteries),” she wrote. “And dare I say, I have read many novels deemed ‘women’s fiction’ that delve into the depth of a character. I have a difficult time distinguishing these days between literary and ‘genre’ fiction – I think it’s blurring.”
Marc Nieson also addressed this blurring of categories. In an interview about his memoir Schoolhouse, in answer to Melissa Scholes Young’s question about why he’s crossing genres, (his work in progress is not another memoir, but a novel), he replied,
“We’re all on the same spectrum after all, of a single species, a single globe. I’d say the same with regard to isolating genres. Memoirs are just one form of word delivery. It’s all inquiry, expression, a search to connect. To honestly recognize our mortal selves in others.”
In his memoir, while exploring how words work on a page, Mr. Nieson points out his conscious use of white space. Space (on a page) is a tool found in the workshop of poets. Memoir and poetry often overlap–consider autobiographical poetry (Anne Sexton’s work, for example), and lyrical memoir (Frances Mayes Under Magnolia).
As genres overlap, they also expand. Jay Parini writes in his introduction to The Norton Anthology of American Autobiography, “In all, the range of tone, focus, and form in American autobiography is dizzying.” That was 1999. Since then, the category has grown as prolifically as kudzu.
So what, exactly, is memoir? I like J.C. Hellman’s simple definition of memoir as well as any:
“A memoir is basically a book about [someone’s] life and the wisdom [she or he has] drawn from it.”
A memoirist uses setting and time to explore a series of events leading to insight about what it meant or why it mattered. Marc Nieson’s memoir Schoolhouse, as J.C. Hallman writes in his review, “uses Nieson’s time living in an old stone schoolhouse during his stint at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop as a temporal fulcrum and emblem of transition.” In an MFA program, writers chose a genre, but are in ongoing conversation with people writing in other genres. They’re bound to share tools.
Mr. Hallman begins his review by acknowledging his relationship with Mr. Nieson. Both attended the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, played poker together, and “became friends in a more than casual, yet less than wholly intimate way.”
And there’s another blurring of boundaries. Ideally, a review ought to be an objective measure of the quality of a book, untainted by the friendship or enmity between reviewer and author. But as Mr. Hellman points out, not only have social media and a shrinking literary landscape made the world smaller, but for hundreds of years “friends (and enemies) write [and have written] about each other’s books, but pretend they are writing about strangers.”
But if writing is not only a “form of word delivery,” but also “a search to connect,” then a blurring of genres, of the relationships between reviewers and writers and readers, even of the definitions of kindred and stranger, is inevitable. Connecting–softening or blurring the boundaries–is the implied goal.
Lee Upton writes in her essay The Bigamists: Writers Crossing Genres:
“An old argument exists that there is no sense in naming genres, given the permeability of language and given that genres are dependent on readers’ expectations and thus are in flux. Admittedly, some genres are more multiply implicated in other genres. Especially if you happen to be a novelist, you are already often a multi-genre worker; for if the novel is still a “loose baggy monster,” as Henry James complained of the nineteenth century novel, the baggy pants contain so many sewn together fragments from other language fields that to write a novel is to engage in practices that are anything but genre-tight. The novel stuffs into its pockets all it can: letters, poetry, ledgers, emoticons.”
These days, so many memoirs read like novels (and vice versa), that for a while no one suspected any wrongdoing when James Frey published his novel A Million Little Pieces as a memoir. Then, after discovering Mr. Frey’s no-no, Oprah kicked his book out of her book club.
It’s a lie to say you’re telling the truth (writing nonfiction), if the stories you write didn’t actually happen.
It’s better to be forthright, as J.C. Hellman was in reviewing Schoolhouse, and as Ann Patchet was, when she published Commonwealth, based on her own experiences. She calls that work an autobiographical novel.
But even better than being forthright, is to be kind. Here’s J.C. Hallman writing about Marc Nieson again:
“Even in the first few pages of his book one taps into the gentle, anger-averse mien that made Nieson something of an odd presence at both those games, and in that creative writing program, each of which often featured conflict….It’s a kind and quiet book about a world that often isn’t either, and it’s told in a spare language that serves an inverted measure of the volume’s difficult-to-plumb sophistication.”
Marc Nieson’s kindness is not only the result of, but also the progenitor, of empathy.
“Of course you recognize that you have a particular kind of intimacy with people in books, and with people through books, which everyday relationships lack, but if you never read a book that was written by someone you know, then you never come truly face to face with the sad inadequacy of real life, which is the reason books exist in the first place,” Mr. Hogan writes. “When I read Schoolhouse, I realized there was more pain and past in Nieson’s life than I had ever known or suspected might have lurked there.”
He adds, brilliantly,
“If you never read a book that was written by someone you know, then you never come truly face to face with the sad inadequacy of real life, which is the reason books exist in the first place.”
I’ve only recently come to understand why I have this lifelong, unwavering commitment to reading and writing. I seek two rewards: 1) to develop empathy as a path to kindness; and 2) to dive below the inadequacy of life to discover the connection of a deeper intimacy. For this reason, there are books I choose to read, and books I refuse to read. There are authors who are kind, and authors who are venomous.
As Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll so famously said, “Words kill; words heal.” (Worte toten; Worte heilen.)
Böll, an intellectual Catholic German who came of age in the Third Reich, wrote his great works (Bogner, Go Home, Children of the Dead, Where Were You, Adam?, and The Two Sacraments) in the post-Nazi era. He concerns himself with the individual’s role in the the realm of corporate/governmental/societal culpability and guilt.
“I don’t believe that an individual can be guilty just because he is born in one place rather than another. But neither is he for that reason innocent. That’s the rub. Neither innocent, nor guilty, that’s what we all are.”
Herr Böll said that, in a 1974 interview just before he gave up the international presidency of P.E.N. in order to devote himself once more entirely to his writing.
I have a dream that people–as individuals, corporations, societies, nations, continental and global associations–might at long last come to the realization that finding fault for our immense, perpetual problems–that casting blame on someone else–gets us nowhere. In order to stop poverty, stop racism, stop violence, stop environmental devastation, stop scapegoating, and stop self-serving exploitation, the solution begins quite simply:
We must grow in maturity and compassion so that we might honestly recognize our mortal selves in others.
We must blur the divide between Us and Them, between Kindred and Other, and then we must treat everyone with kindness.
Kindness = of one kind.
To whom do you choose to listen? Are there books, authors, reviewers, commentators, or people in your world whose voices you consider kind?
Next time: my thoughts on the impressively kind, cross-genre epic, Sister of Grendel, by poet-novelist Susan Thurston.
Recommended reading: J.C. Hallman’s Amputations and Oversights: On Marc Nieson’s ‘Schoolhouse’ ; Lee Upton’s The Bigamists: Writers Crossing Genres; and “An Interview with Heinrich Böll.”