I have been thinking lately about what makes a successful memoir. This came up because I recently read two memoirs, and they made for an interesting contrast. The two new books I read were Shakespeare Saved My Life: Ten Years in Solitary with the Bard, by Laura Bates; and Turn Around Bright Eyes: The Rituals of Love and Karaoke, by Rob Sheffield. To test my theories, I also re-read Jack Gantos’s Printz-honor winning memoir, Hole in My Life.
I have thought for years that memoir is a particularly difficult literary form. For one thing, to be effective, a memoir has to have a structure–it can’t just be “I did this, then I did that.” The best memoirs have a theme, and/or focus on only one relatively small part of the author’s life. All three of these books do that, to some extent.
Gantos tells the story of the years when he was about ages 17-20, in which he finished high school living on his own in a welfare motel, then got a job sailing 2000 pounds of hashish from St. Croix to New York, then got arrested and jailed for it, served his time, and started college and his writing career. Sheffield focuses on karaoke and how his love for it helped bring him out of the funk he was in after his first wife died (when they were both 31), and led him to his second wife. He uses a frame device of a night of karaoke to tell his personal story, as well as the story of karaoke and of some of the music involved. Bates is an English professor who spent more than ten years teaching Shakespeare in prisons, including in super-maximum security facilities and focuses on one particular prison and one particular prisoner.
So far, so good. However, even on this initial criterion, Bates stumbles by failing to keep it tightly focused. She can’t quite seem to decide if the story is about herself and her writing/teaching/volunteering, about prisons, about Shakespeare, or about Larry Newton, the prisoner. In fact, the longer the book goes, the more she veers into the story of Newton, and the less interesting it gets, in many ways. I would have been quite happy to have had the whole book be about just the prisoners and Shakespeare–how they interpreted the plays, their discussions, and so on. Although even there, I was a little irritated by her constant assertions that Newton had come up with brand-new, never-before-heard-of interpretations of Shakespeare. Really? After 500 years and thousands upon thousands of Shakespeare scholars, no one has ever discussed that particular aspect? Well, she’s the one with a PhD in Shakespeare studies, so maybe she’s right, but I somehow doubt it.
I have decided that there is another critical component of the well-written memoir: the author has to be able to tell stories without coming across as completely full of himself/herself. On that score, Gantos soars, Sheffield does pretty well, and Bates flounders. She can’t seem to tell a story without patting herself on the back. Even the stories about mistakes turn into stories about what a great recovery she made.
Gantos, in contrast, has got self-deprecation down to an artform. He is honest, straightforward, and absolutely hilarious. His story about the days after his arrest, when his face broke out in a massive acne attack, and how he squeezed the zits: “This was very satisfying, this cleansing ritual. I’d punish my face as if I were a cop roughing up a suspect for a confession. . . . I figured my face was the landscape of my attitude.” Brilliant! Gross, but funny and very, very true.
The whole book is like that–an unflinching look at himself at one particular time in his life, when he made a whole series of stupid decisions, but somehow managed to land on his feet. Running throughout is his love of literature and his desire to write. I’m glad I re-read this, because it is wonderful, funny, touching, and beautifully written. I’ll be interested to see how it fares when you get to 2003 in your What Should’ve Won series.
Rob Sheffield is cut much more in the Gantos mode than in the Bates mode. I read and loved his first memoir, Love is a Mix Tape, which was the story of his life with his first wife, told through the lens of the mix tapes they made for one another. Sheffield writes for Rolling Stone, and he obviously loves popular music in all its many variations. To some extent, Sheffield can’t quite decide if this is a book about karaoke, or if it’s a story about his life. There were a couple of chapters that, while delightful, didn’t really fit into the overall arc of the story. But he has a way of pulling you along, especially if you know any of the music he’s talking about.
Like Gantos, he can be absolutely unflinching when talking about his own foibles. His chapter about going to a rock and roll fantasy camp is hilarious: he can’t sing, can’t play and instrument, and even has trouble with the tambourine (including massive bruises on his thighs). He can’t even talk to the rock musicians who are at the camp without feeling stupid. He says:
“Why am I like this? Is it because I want to show off? Is it because I want extra credit for all my extra listening? Is it an ego thing where I’m trying to impress them with obnoxiously knowledgeable insights? Or is it because I want to reassure them their lifetime of music was spent wisely? I really don’t know. But remembering which dude in which band sang which song, or knowing every dusty nook and cranny of their discography–it’s like an obnoxious party trick I can’t stop doing.”
Later in the same section he says, “The possibility that I’m a dick, not for the first time this week, hovers before me.”
I don’t think a memoir has to be funny in order to be good, but I do think that a memoir writer has to have a sense of humor about himself, and acknowledge his failures as well as his successes.
I know you’re not much of a fan of the memoir/biography/autobiography form, but any thoughts on the subject?