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Memoirist extraordinaire Mary Karr (Photo: Todd Plitt, USA TODAY)

TMI. It’s like drinking: Some can handle a lot, and some are flattened after just one glass.

Meanwhile we are living in an age of rampant confessionalism, memoiring gone viral, with more blogs than there are humans and way too much information being flung at us about the lives of all those famous people. So it is easy to be in sympathy with the opening salvo of Neil Genzlinger’s review of a new crop of memoirs that appeared in the Sunday Times Book Review:

A moment of silence, please, for the lost art of shutting up.

There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occur­rences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked upon, the way God intended.

But then came our current age of oversharing, and all heck broke loose. These days, if you’re planning to browse the “memoir” listings on Amazon, make sure you’re in a comfortable chair, because that search term produces about 40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it.

I am not a story teller but the maker of non-narrative visual art. As a result I don’t have a professional stake in story telling in all of its many forms. But like you, I too love a great tale, the seduction of cinema, novels that whisk us far from our own lives and into the throes of someone else’s adventure. And masterful, compelling memoirs have been written of course, like anything by Mary Karr.*

But as Genzlinger points out (with no mincing of words):

That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. This maxim, which was inspired by an unrewarding few hours with “Dis­aster Preparedness,” by Heather Havri­lesky, is really a response to a broader problem, a sort of grade inflation for life experiences. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or a D if grades were being passed out — not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy. And so Havrilesky…spends 239 pages dragging us through what seems to be an utterly ordinary childhood in North Carolina…The rest belongs on a blog.

That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. That might make a worthwhile fridge magnet. Enough already?

Regarding his comment that “the rest belongs on a blog,” I will make the argument that may sound self serving but is still legitimate: there are blogs and then there are blogs. I spend enough time on content-rich sites where the personal is kept to a mere ornament to know how valuable the blogosphere is for the idea-rich, provocative reading I enjoy. But maybe we do need a cordoned off section, a blogobadlands where the tell-all, the “I’ll listen to your story if you’ll listen to mine,” the “my life is really meaningful and I’m going to tell you all about it!” types can gather, a place where it is agreed that your story is your primary currency and the swapping of personal anecdotes is the norm.

Finding a respectable middle ground between coldly detached, intellectual content and the warm and fuzzy personal is a Maginot Line that is constantly moving. This shift ican be seen both in written expression as well as in our social norms. Well researched, factual books such as Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier includes just enough of the personal to keep the reader in a warm and welcoming space. Angier never overshares but finds a pitch perfect blend of fact and her own experiences. It used to be that no therapist would allow any first person anecdoting to play a part in therapy. That concept sounds oddly outdated and unduly formalized based on today’s more natural, conversational, coaching-esque therapy styles.

In the spirit of Kevin Kelly and Stephen Johnson’s claim (I referenced the original comment here) that you have to wade through a lot of crap to get to the really good stuff, I’d say the same may be true with memoirs and the overly personal. Story telling is important. Most of us don’t do it with artfulness. But for those who do, they deserve our time and attention.

Of the four books Genzlinger reviews, only one of them emerges with a thumbs up: Johanna Adorjan’s An Exclusive Love, a “spare, beautiful exploration of why her grandparents killed themselves.” And his point is well taken:

If you still must write a memoir, consider making yourself the least important character in it…what makes a good memoir — it’s not a regurgitation of ordinariness or ordeal, not a dart thrown desperately at a trendy topic, but a shared discovery. Maybe that’s a good rule of thumb: If you didn’t feel you were discovering something as you wrote your memoir, don’t publish it. Instead hit the delete key, and then go congratulate yourself for having lived a perfectly good, undistinguished life. There’s no shame in that.

*On the blog, 100 Memoirs, Shirley Hershey Showalter has compiled a list of Mary Karr’s favorite memoirs. This is useful since IMHO Karr is the contemporary master of the form.

1. Maxine Hong Kingston, The Woman Warrior
2. Richard Wright, Black Boy
3. Hilary Mantel, Giving Up the Ghost
4. Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That
5. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X
6. John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me
7. Tobias Wolff, This Boy’s Life
8. Michael Herr, Dispatches
9. Maya Angelou, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings
10. Frederick Exley, A Fan’s Notes

And Yet the Books

And yet the books will be there on the shelves, separate beings,
That appeared once, still wet
As shining chestnuts under a tree in autumn,
And, touched, coddled, began to live
In spite of fires on the horizon, castles blown up,
Tribes on the march, planets in motion.
“We are, ” they said, even as their pages
Were being torn out, or a buzzing flame
Licked away their letters. So much more durable
Than we are, whose frail warmth
Cools down with memory, disperses, perishes.
I imagine the earth when I am no more:
Nothing happens, no loss, it’s still a strange pageant,
Women’s dresses, dewy lilacs, a song in the valley.
Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born,
Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights.

–Czeslaw Milosz
Translated by Robert Hass

Mary Karr does a fabulous serialized gig, available on You Tube, that she calls Poetry Fix. You can watch the one where she reads this poem, episode 17, along with all the others in the series. I’ve been a big fan of Karr’s for a long time so this is just more of her good stuff delivered quickly, deftly and with that LOL Karr sense of humor.

I don’t want to forget to mention that the poem is fabulous. Right up my book-loving alley.