The problem with ‘me’ in ‘memoir’

Here’s a good and well-written piece of review journalism that offers an insight into why some memoirs work and others don’t. It’s by no means the definitive work on the subject, but a pretty good summary (which is about all you can ask of a print journalist working to a tight word count).

Just as interesting as Genzlinger’s argument for the existence of editors is the long tail of comments he’s attracted. Many simply applaud the reviewer, but he appears to have wounded a sizeable group by suggesting (as his online illustrator has so brilliantly depicted) that too much ‘me’ gives ‘memoir’ an off-putting pong.

It seems what Genzlinger is saying, and what many of the outraged commentators are missing, is that personal experience in itself does not make for a good story. It’s when that experience steps into the realm of the universal that others empathise and become hooked. Certainly the first person singular is important in memoir writing – it’s personal, after all – but there’s nothing like a good third person singular overview from an editor to separate the wheat from the chaff.

If writers listened to them, there’s be a lot fewer opportunities for Genzlinger and others to skewer flawed efforts.

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