From Saint Augustine to Augusten Burroughs, man seems intent on telling the world his life story. Memoir: A History author Ben Yagoda says that the genre produces strong, compelling prose, is subject to abuse and self-indulgence and requires a certain flexibility when defining truth.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Carelessly scattering bits and pieces of our lives behind us in the moment is a byproduct of the digital age, but meticulously constructing our personal narratives for posterity, that’s an ancient tradition. Journalist Ben Yagoda has just authored a book that traces the long and storied life of the memoir. It’s called Memoir: A History. Welcome back to the show.
BEN YAGODA: Thank you, Brooke. It’s great to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So, can anything that we write about that happened to us be called a memoir, because your book touches on everything from The Confessions of Saint Augustine to Dishwasher: One Man’s Quest to Wash Dishes in All Fifty States?
BEN YAGODA: Now, in this memoir boom that’s lasted oh, 15 years or so, memoir is a brand. So sure, the Dishwasher, Julie Powell, a memoir of Julie and Julia, the way I look at it and the way I defined it for the book was, a book-length endeavor that purported to tell the story of all or part of the author’s life.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: So let's start with The Saint, the ur-confession. You admire it very much.
BEN YAGODA: Yes, it was a singular book of its kind. It came out in the third century, and here was a man, Saint Augustine, much as men and women do today, baring his soul.
NARRATOR: “I wish now to review in memory my past wickedness and the carnal corruptions of my soul, not because I still love them, but that I may love thee, oh, my God. For love of thy love I do this, recalling in the bitterness of self-examination my wicked ways.”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Do you think that Saint Augustine embroidered things, you know, lied?
BEN YAGODA: Well, the short answer is yes. The longer answer would discuss what the word “lie” means. He thought the memory was a perfect instrument or a perfectible instrument. All psychological research ever since has indicated that it is very far from that. So we distort as we remember. Today when someone writes a memoir, the custom is that you put in pages and pages of dialogue that might have taken place two years ago or forty years ago. That is fiction. I can't remember what I said to you two-and-a-half minutes ago, much less what my mother told me in an argument 30 years ago.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It’s poetic verisimilitude.
BEN YAGODA: It’s poetic license, right. And not everything is permitted. We would agree to that. However, when someone picks up a memoir or a book labeled as such, the person expects there to be a certain level of truth or else [LAUGHS] what’s the point of it being a memoir to begin with? So what is that level? What’s that accessible level of truth? That question hasn't been answered. Maybe it can't be answered, but that’s the key question.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, you write that he believed that all memoirists, that is, up until –
[BEN YAGODA LAUGHS] - Rousseau himself – were liars, and this is one guy’s memoir in which you seem to entirely believe. He didn't sugar coat, did he?
BEN YAGODA: Well, he certainly didn't sugar-coat, and that’s a little insider’s hint to memoirs. If you want to be believed, make yourself look bad. That can cover a multitude of fabrications. He detailed his unseemly sexual habits; he made himself look like a small, petty person for making a servant girl take the rap for something he committed. Significantly, Rousseau read some portions of the book aloud while he was working on it and was met with shock and scandal.
NARRATOR: “Women who could be bought for money would lose for me all their charms. I even doubt whether it would be in me to make use of them. I only love those enjoyments which belong to no one but the first man who knows how to enjoy them.”
BEN YAGODA: In the end, the book was not published ‘til after his death, probably fortunately for Rousseau.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You note that one of the most influential memoirs of all time, one that set the template for generations, was actually explicitly fiction. I will read the first sentence. “I was born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise and, leaving his trade, lived afterward at York, from whence he married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay, we now call ourselves and write out name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me.”
BEN YAGODA: Oh, I want to hear more. That is great.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] Daniel Defoe - oh boy, what a writer. Yeah, and Robinson Crusoe was in the form of an autobiography, totally made up out of whole cloth, though there was a real person that it was based on. But at this time, in the 1700s, there was no labels. There was no nonfiction bestseller list. There was no memoir section of the store. It just came out as a book, and people honestly didn't know what to make of it. Some people were fooled and then got really mad when they found out that it was fiction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But how did he influence the creation of true chronicles?
BEN YAGODA: Well, that’s an amazing thing. I mean, he wrote a series of books, Moll Flanders, Robinson Crusoe and several others that were novels in the form of autobiography, and the success of these novels actually influenced people to write real autobiographies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You know, Ben, there’s one thing that comes through loud and clear in this very entertaining book of yours. No matter what stabs you make at even-handedness here and there, you really don't think much of the memoir. When you like one, you usually say that it transcends the genre.
BEN YAGODA: [LAUGHS]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Why can't it be seen as a brilliant expression of the genre?
BEN YAGODA: Wow, I didn't realize that. I believe you. I feel agnostic as to the genre, I really do. I don't think I like it or dislike it. In fact, on balance I would say I'm on the plus side, just because, you know, I teach writing, and you know the biggest cliché of writing instruction.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Write what you know?
BEN YAGODA: Exactly.
[BROOKE LAUGHS] And it’s a cliché because it’s true. People who write about what they know tend to write stronger, more compelling, more readable prose, and that’s a memoirist does. It’s subject to abuse, self-indulgence, going on and on too long, making stuff up, but in the right hands those ones that, as you say, I praise, it’s really a pretty spiffy genre.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s your favorite memoir?
BEN YAGODA: Russell Baker’s Growing Up, which came out before the memoir boom and, maybe as such, did not focus on abuse, trauma, etc. but rather on the singularity of his experience and the pleasures of good writing and observation.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: What’s a memoir that you hate?
BEN YAGODA: I would say Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And why is that?
BEN YAGODA: As we said earlier, dialogue in a memoir is something that’s expected, and a certain amount of it is poetic license. But the more you do it, the more you’re just throwing in the reader’s face the fact that this really isn't true in the full sense of the word “true.” Furthermore, in his book, the attitude towards the people that he writes about is very disdainful, dismissive, filled with cheap shots. I just didn't like the whole approach of the book.
NARRATOR: “‘You infantile tyrant!’ my mother shouted from her position on the sofa, legs folded up beneath her. ‘You’d like nothing more than to see me slit my wrists.’”
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You didn't like him.
BEN YAGODA: Right. You respond to that book and you’re responding to that writer, and it’s really one and the same thing. A memoirist really puts himself or herself out there, and I do find that admirable.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Thanks so much.
BEN YAGODA: My pleasure, thank you.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Ben Yagoda teaches journalism at the University of Delaware. His new book is Memoir: A History.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Mike Vuolo, Mark Phillips, Nazanin Rafsanjani, Michael Bernstein and P.J. Vogt, with more help from James Hawver, Dan Mauzy and Julia Simon, and edited – by Brooke. We had technical direction from Jennifer Munson and more engineering help from Zach Marsh.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I am Brooke Gladstone, as well.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: [LAUGHS] I don't want your history.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, then I'm Bob Garfield.