Mark Athitakis has written reviews and essays on books for the New York Times, the Barnes & Noble Review, Humanities magazine, Washington City Paper and many other publications. He lives in Phoenix.
This month marks the arrival in English of the fourth volume of “My Struggle,” an autobiographical novel by Karl Ove Knausgaard that’s made the author a celebrity in his native Norway. For literary types, this is either cause for celebration or the latest instance in what’s become an annual ritual of eye-rolling. (Two more volumes are forthcoming.) For those of the latter persuasion, “My Struggle” represents a puzzling abandonment of artful prose in favor of a pile-on of bland detail about growing up, getting married, writing and reckoning with mortality. When the New York Times Magazine recently sent Knausgaard to America to play Alexis de Tocqueville, the most adventurous thing he accomplished was clogging a hotel toilet in the manner you’d least like to hear about. “Karl Ove Knausgaard Is the World’s Worst Travel Writer,” Slate proclaimed.
Even so, I’m wholeheartedly, full-throatedly on Team Knausgaard, in part because I’m inspired by his mission: to destroy the memoir as we know it. “My Struggle” all but announces that goal in its provocative title, which mocks the preening and pronunciamentos of many memoirists, not least the man who used the title first. But it’s also sunk deep in the book’s unvarnished, plain-spoken prose, which is cleansed of pleading, forced meanings and easy lessons. His everydayness echoes and amplifies our own everydayness, celebrating it instead of stuffing it into contrived structures. What, you’ve never clogged a toilet?
Better this, I think, than much of the current crop of best-selling memoirs, which breaks down into a handful of dispiriting categories. Among them are I’m Famous (Tina Fey’s “Bossypants,” Amy Poehler’s “Yes Please,” Rob Lowe’s “Stories I Only Tell My Friends”); I’m Running for President (Marco Rubio’s “American Dreams,” Ted Cruz’s “A Time for Truth,” Hillary Clinton’s “Hard Choices”); and I Used to Be Dead but for Some Reason I’m Not Anymore (Eben Alexander’s “Proof of Heaven,” Bill Weise’s “23 Minutes in Hell”).
Tina Fey is funnier than Bill Weise. Marco Rubio is stronger on immigration policy than Rob Lowe. But to a larger or smaller degree, they’re all books as selfies: “Look at me!” ploys in the guise of truth-telling, attempts to move us to see the author as clever or electable or holy. Such books, particularly of the political variety, are routinely slathered in anecdote and platitude, pleasurable and informative only for those who wish stump speeches were longer.
Memoirs with more literary ambitions are no less immune to such problems. In 2010, Patti Smith, whom I admire as a musician as much as I admire Knausgaard as a writer, published a memoir of her early career in New York, “Just Kids.” The book is shot through with her love and admiration for photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who supported her during their hand-to-mouth days of the early ’70s. But the story is often conveyed in prose that makes Mapplethorpe seem less a person than a guru: “On our first night together at Hall Street he gave me the cherished necklace”; “Without his arranging hand, I lived in a state of heightened chaos.” Reading “Just Kids” often feels like reading a stack of thank-you notes, hinting at a deeper experience that, for all its expressions of fellow-feeling and gratitude, is never quite revealed. In 2011, the usually whip-smart and provocative critic William Deresiewicz delivered a memoir, “A Jane Austen Education,” that reduced the novelist’s work to self-help lessons, punctuated by the author’s own wan declarations of wisdom. (“I knew I couldn’t live like that anymore.” “You didn’t have to dominate people to earn their respect.”)
Such pleas for attention bundled in gauzy prose are usually harmless. But public self-regard isn’t always so innocuous. Because we crave others’ self-exposure so much — because we rightly sense that what we see on the surface isn’t the whole story — bad actors have seized opportunities to exploit it. The commercial rise of memoirs in the past decade or so has been shadowed by a rise in dubious ones: James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” Margaret B. Jones’s “Love and Consequences,” Herman Rosenblat’s “Angel at the Fence” (never published, but exposed as a fraud after the author appeared on “Oprah” and sold the film rights), to pick just a few recent examples. Each of those books addressed difficult subjects — addiction, gang violence, the Holocaust — that only became more difficult to discuss because somebody was making up stories about them.
Which is another reason to appreciate “My Struggle.” Though Knausgaard drew from his own life to write it, he calls it fiction, recognizing the inevitable artifice of memoir: Describing one’s own life means approaching it from a narrow perspective that is bound to get things wrong. Humorist and memoirist David Sedaris rightly calls his work “realish.” Every work in the first person is.
Any call to disappear memoirs, or even to brand them as fiction, is foolish, of course. The publishing industry changing course on memoirs would be as financially catastrophic as the car industry dispensing with steering wheels. Memoir sales quintupled between 2004 and 2008, and memoirs accounted for eight of the top 20 nonfiction bestsellers last year, according to Nielsen BookScan.
But the kinds of books that have thrived during the memoir boom obscure the nobler purpose of autobiography: To tell a story not about the person doing the writing but about the subject they’ve lived through. When I think of the recent memoirs I’ve admired — Edwidge Danticat’s “Brother, I’m Dying,” Howard Norman’s “I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place,” Roz Chast’s “Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?” — what sticks in my mind are the places they evoke and the challenges they explore, not the people who wrote them.
Annie Dillard’s 1974 book “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” is a memoir that’s a lot about God and nature and a little about a writer named Annie Dillard, exploring the woods near her Virginia home. Diana Saverin recently wrote in the Atlantic about the remarkable amount of research Dillard brought to what’s ostensibly a first-person story: She had assembled more than 1,100 notecards stuffed with facts, observations, ideas and quotations, all shuffled and reshuffled until she arrived at what she called in her journal a “novelized book of nonfiction.” Dillard is a charming narrator, and “Pilgrim” is one of the finest memoirs around. But it succeeds thanks to its painterly detail about the wilderness and what it means to be a human being — any human being — wandering through it.
So write your memoir if you must. Just recognize that “I” is the least important word in it.