It appears that my camera lens was damaged during the course of the move. So I’m afraid I don’t have decent photos to accompany what went down on Thursday night at Housing Works — a most excellent bookstore, I might add — where A.M. Homes and Daniel Mendelsohn were in discussion on the memoir’s current state.
It might seem to some readers that I’m stalking a certain person, who I will refer here only as Colonel Klink in order to avoid yet another tedious mention. Honestly, I attended this panel because it was impossible to resist such an interesting pair-up of authors. I did not know that Colonel Klink, again out of his league though more tolerable this time, would be moderating the panel. Maybe I was a bit naive to expect otherwise. This was a pity, because juxtaposing Mendelsohn’s hyper-articulate vernacular, involving sentences with clauses within clauses within clauses, with Homes’ clear enthusiasm was a smart way to keep the panel going.
Approximately sixty people showed up to the event, with the front rows reserved for Homes and Mendelsohn’s respective families, leading me to wonder if Col. Klink was prepared to shout, “Let’s play the Feud!” I was disappointed not to run into Matt Mendelsohn, who long-time readers might recall leaped to his brother’s defense when Mendelsohn declared litbloggers as the devil incarnate. (Give Mendelsohn some points for being ahead of the pugilistic curve.) But I did run into Homes’ brother while standing in line to purchase a book.
I hope the reader here will forgive me if I elide Colonel Klink’s needless digressions from the record and dwell upon the considerably more thoughtful remarks from the subjects.
There was initial discussion about what the memoir is. Mendelsohn identified it as “a genre with a very long history.” He suggested that the current explosion in memoirs was comparable to the similar explosion that followed the French Revolution. He offered his “nutty mad scientist” theory linking the rise of the memoir to the end of the Cold War, comparing the memoir to new trees rising after a forest fire. “When old narratives collapse, the new ones pop up.” Mendelsohn was adamant about distinguishing biography from memoir, calling the former merely the writing of one’s life “from soup to nuts, presumably” and the latter involving how one’s life is a kind of prism to thinking of life’s issues.
Homes suggested that its rise had something to do with how postwar America had failed at the American dream and that the lost notion of imagination had led to more fact-based societal experiences. Mendelsohn interjected that the explosion of psychotherapy had much to do with it, leaving Homes to volley back about the “I’m not okay, you’re not okay” culture.
I enjoyed these conceptual volleys between Homes and Mendelsohn the best. Mendelsohn suffered from a kind of leonine hyper-articulitis, speaking in sentences like, “Some of the exhaustion of the novel — at least on the perception of the readers — may have something to do with this as well.” You’d expect Homes to translate for Mendelsohn, but she’d often offer a wild digression instead. It was a clear case of contrapuntal craziness, and Colonel Klink’s moderation was quite unnecessary. The two authors were just fine on their own.
Homes carried on about how her investigation into personal history became very much about world history. Mendelsohn, his right hand fixed in the air as if expecting Michelangelo to paint in the details, pointed out that reality is “a function of increasing representation and reproduction.” He pointed out that everybody marching through Europe between 1892 and 1912 appeared to have heavy boots, since they were always depicted in memoirs as on the go.
Homes observed that the voice of the novel is less stabler than that of the memoir. Quoting Popeye’s “I yam what I am,” Homes said that the novel was more fluid and constantly changing, but that the memoir was rooted in unshakable personal experience. Mendelsohn went further, pointing out that, “Whatever happened, it would make into the book.” There was, as readers of The Lost know, a point late in the book where he thought things had ended and had written a final chapter, only to learn of a dramatic discovery that caused him to write a new ending.
Homes noted that there was “nothing too unbelievable to be true.” Mendelsohn noted that what an author leaves out is a non-memoir. He then noted, with a smug air, about how he’s on the treadmill every day and sees the stuff on daytime television, a telltale sign that you can’t put everything into something.
Homes observed, “The average contemporary memoir isn’t written at all.” By this, she meant that there were many books written by people with an incident to tell, but that the larger thematic point identified by Mendelsohn was often overlooked or not considered.
Mendelsohn pointed out that the memoir has to engage the reader and leave out elements that are unnecessary. “It can be true without being the whole story.” He also pointed out that he received a great number of emails from people who had read his book and who would thereby confess their stories to him. Here, Mendelsohn segued into disappointing elitism, pointing out that 98% of these emails were from those “sitting in his underwear with a laptop.” He expressed contempt that these readers would think him his friend.
Later during the evening, Mendelsohn would point out how he was frustrated that readers couldn’t latch onto characters in The Iliad. “Think outside of the box!” exclaimed Mendelsohn. Considering his previously uttered generalization about people on the Internet and his insistence that he wasn’t interested in many of the stories from these readers, perhaps Mendelsohn should follow his own advice and be more tolerant and kinder towards the people who took the time out to write to him.
Mendelsohn characterized The Lost less as a memoir about the Holocaust and more as “a memoir about memory.” He was disappointed in many of the reviews of his book, which were more interested in the biographical details.
Homes expanded on this latter point, noting that we are “living in a culture that has Alzaheimer’s and has problems with memories. Even our government doesn’t remember what it did last week.”
Mendelsohn suggested quite interestingly that this was because of a “failure of the master narrative.” Unfortunately, due to his hyper-articulitis, he got too mired in his own thoughts and didn’t elaborate upon this interesting idea.
Homes made the bold claim, “Most memoirs are easier to read than a novel.” Novels, she said, are harder to navigate. But she did note that “we don’t live in a culture of readers.” People now relate by spilling their guts. She observed that she also received many emails from people spilling their guts after The Mistress’s Daughter.
Homes said that she wanted to be “as clean and direct in the telling of the story.” Mendelsohn had differing sensibilities, pointing out that he wanted to see the page dirtier. He pointed out, in light of the rise of narrative nonfiction, that every good story has the same elements.
During the discussion of reviews, Mendelsohn complained about The Lost being categorized by the L.A. Times Book Prize as “Biography.” “Maybe that’s why I didn’t win,” said Mendelsohn with a sour grapes gravitas.
Homes noted that there was a “general big mess about the memoir.” It’s the same setup as reality television, where everything is scripted.
Mendelsohn pointed out, “We’re in a crisis about reality.” The whole culture, he noted, is about irreality and thus more anxious about accuracy. Allusions were made in the Q&A part of the panel to Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That, which played looser with the truth but was more accepted by its audience. Mendelsohn observed that he doesn’t read Goodbye to All That for an Einsteinian truth about the universe, but because he wants to know what Graves thought about his story.
Homes noted that her memoir helped her determine that she had the right to exist, whereas she didn’t feel this before. She now feels legitimate, regardless of her parentage, and she feels connected to all of her families. Mendelsohn then commended Homes with an excited “You see, that’s what I’m talking about!” flourish, pointing out that Homes ability to describe a theme is what sets her apart. He declared his own theme as the acknowledgment of multiplicity of family identities. All memoirs, he said, should end well as an artistic object. And on that note, the panel ended, with nobody in particular objecting to this genre categorization.