“There’s a place in hell for writers who quote themselves,” Mary Karr says in the “Caveat Emptor” that stands guard over “The Art of Memoir.” She proceeds, naturally, to quote herself at length, offering a preemptory defense: “If I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have way more Nabokov in here.”
Karr is smart to acknowledge both literary economics and Samuel Johnson, who famously said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.” No question this book was written (at least partially) for the sake of money: We live in the golden age of memoir, and all props to Karr for making a buck in the bargain. As for hell, Lord knows she has more material to quote than most. Her poetry and three memoirs — “The Liars’ Club,” “Cherry” and “Lit” (my favorite) — contain plenty of outrageously quotable material.
But “The Art of Memoir” is a hodgepodge of a book. Karr says it is addressed primarily to general readers, but it will appeal most to those hoping to write their own memoirs. She advises in a preface that the rest of us skip past the how-to sections, but I reserve the right to regard them with fascination. Karr’s instructions are sometimes ethical, sometimes technical, the latter of a type Flannery O’Connor once memorably disdained as “Let’s plot!” In chapters such as “How to Choose a Detail,” Karr doles out micro-management advice that diminishes her inventive engagement with literary art elsewhere in these pages.
Yet Karr gracefully deflects attacks on the memoir by critics William Gass and James Wolcott and sweet-talks even a memoirphobe like me. Good prose is good prose, and, as a teacher of writing, I cheerfully admit to profiting from reading most of the work Karr discusses. I prefer meditation in private to classroom exercises, but some of Karr’s teaching ideas are appealingly wacky. For instance, I find myself delighted by a confrontation Karr stages with a colleague who interrupts her class repeatedly until a scuffle ensues. Afterward, she demonstrates to students how varied their memories of crucial details can be.
“No one elected me the boss of memoir,” she announces at the outset, but Karr’s own practice makes her a good model of the principled writer. She notifies those she loves in advance of writing, lets them read the finished manuscript, examines her literary conscience and acknowledges different recollections without changing her own. She changes the names of “the innocent” and (even better) lets them pick their own pseudonyms. Tell the truth as best you can, she advises, but remember that memoirs by such writers as Michael Herr and Maxine Hong Kingston don’t “masquerade as fact. They let you in on how their own prejudices mold memory’s sifter.”
Though Karr’s own Texan voice strains a bit in the opening pages to achieve the swagger and folksy charm she is known for, her emphasis on finding an authentic, unpretentious voice will be useful to any novice writer. She also provides a superb reading list of (mostly contemporary) memoirs and discusses such excellent idiosyncratic examples as Hilary Mantel’s “Giving up the Ghost” and G.H. Hardy’s “A Mathematician’s Apology.” Her close readings are full of smart insights about the problems writers overcome; I wish she had the space to explore the memoirists she esteems at greater depth. But nobody elected me the boss of literary commerce.
The writing, generally lively, needed a closer editorial hand. Repeated words and phrases sprout up like choke weed, the most egregious example being “passion,” which appears four times in two pages and is passionately sprinkled throughout. But its overuse here suggests a bigger issue: Though her analyses of Nabokov, Kingston, Augustine and Richard Wright offer rich aesthetic, religious and political considerations, Karr emphasizes the emotional side of the writer-reader equation. Her overarching argument relies heavily on the writer’s relationship with her own psyche and the reader’s identification with the writer.
If that focus is not satisfying for me, I suspect it will have plenty of takers, and I hasten to add that “The Art of Memoir” is full of Karr’s usual wit, compassion and, perhaps most reassuringly, self-doubt. Her fans should be delighted — and they can’t go wrong reading the books she discusses, including her own.
Valerie Sayers, a professor of English at the University of Notre Dame, is the author of six novels, including “The Powers.”
By Mary Karr
Harper. 229 pp. $24.99