Journalists are handed a lot of evidence that the world at large doesn’t think much of our trade. No-one seems to appreciate how selflessly we serve the greater good, what keen-eyed observers and trenchant analysts we are.
So there we are, feeling all righteous and aggrieved, and then the news cycle coughs up a reminder that sometimes we really don’t have a clue. One recent example I found especially painful because it involved literary journalism, which has more or less been my home turf since the dawn of time.
On Nov. 3, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story headlined “Celebrating the Memoir: Fiction’s Day Is Done?” It’s a profile of Ben Yagoda, a well-published writer who has a new book out called Memoir: A History. Okay, the guy has a new book and he was appearing at a local festival on “Memoir and Documentary Art.” Fine, profile him. Perfectly sound logic there.
The trouble starts when the profile writer tries to go all big-picture: “The emphasis on memoir is so strong that autobiography, history and fiction may be endangered. And the reasons for memoir’s popularity may rest in our very nature as Americans: In a land where the majority rules, individuality is exalted and memoir is more befitting the American ideal of resourcefulness.” The story goes on to quote Yagoda: “When it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is done,” he says. Then it serves up some palaver about history books (we no longer believe in them) and book clubs (terrible places to talk about fiction).
Now I haven’t read Yagoda’s new book, so I can’t weigh his arguments and conclusions with any justice. I can and do, however, take issue with just about everything else the profile would have me believe: the essentialist argument that “our very nature as Americans” means that we love memoirs more than anything else; the idea that we used to read fiction mostly to have points proved and cases made; the suggestion that history doesn’t cut it as a genre any more and that book clubs are hopeless when it comes to talking about fiction. (I imagine book clubbers south of Canada and north of Mexico picking up copies of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, screaming “Novel!” and running for the exits, leaving their glasses of Zinfandel untouched on the coffee table.)
In a word: No, no, no, and no!
I’m going to go curl up in the Curmudgeons’ Corner now and grumble about what my profession is coming to. Mark Athitakis has far more reasonable (and well-reasoned) things to say about memoir vs. fiction here.