Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Sunday Salon: Memoirs

I don't read an abundance of memoirs. I am just really and truly a fiction girl, with some theology and Christian life reading thrown in for good measure. But occasionally I'll pick one up and enjoy it. This week I reviewed Trail of Crumbs which was excellent.

When I've read memoirs, I've never really had a problem with the memoirist, however, so I'm surprised when others point out how arrogant they sound. The first time this happened was when our late beloved Dewey answered questions about Educating Esme. I had read this book and felt inspired by it. It never really occurred to me that Esme was arrogant until Dewey pointed it out. I don't know that if I went back and read it I would find that to be true or not, I'd rather keep my positive impression of the book to be honest. (I just went and read the comments to see if I said anything at the time...I didn't. I did think Esme's comment was funny)

Anyway, perhaps because I didn't comment, it's remained an unresolved issue in my mind so when a comment came in this week on one of my glowing reviews of a memoir, it came to the surface again. The book was A Friend Like Henry by Nuala Gardner which I loved and wept during. I felt that book truly inspired and educated me. Here's what the commentor said:

I can honestly say this is the worst book I have ever read. The only redeeming part of the book is when Dale offered his own insights in just a few pages. The book should have been titled...Me, me and more about me. This was one of the most egotistical books I've read, and I've been reading for over 50 years. I highly recommend NOT reading this book.

I have to admit my initial reaction was...what?!? Then I thought, were they aware this is a memoir? (of which the first two letters spell ME). And finally, I tried to see it from their point of view. And I can...a little bit. After all, they were pretty awesome and persistent parents willing to do anything for their son. But the end I can't really see it from their point of view. I was left to conclude they had some sort of personal vendetta against the actual people and decided to take it to my blog, the logical place to air such things. (I suspect this because the search term that led them to my blog was the name of the author and not the book)

But I wonder....I mean, in the case of Esme and Nuala, perhaps it's hard not to sound like you think you're great. Both of them faced quite a bit of adversity and overcame huge obstacles. Their stories are inspirational and triumphant. And their hard work, persistence, and belief in themselves played a big role in that. So when they write about it...well perhaps there's no way not to sound arrogant.

So how about all of you? Do you read memoirs? Have you ever found the memoirist arrogant? Have you ever read a memoir that you found you enjoyed but did not like the memoirist? (is that even a word, or have I made it up for this blog post?)



Kerrie said...

I think memoirs are necessarily self-focussed, but perhaps not always arrogant.

Literary Feline said...

I have read a few memoirs over the years and cannot say I have come across any in which I would call the author arrogant. As you point out, memoirs by their very nature are about the author. I imagine it can and probably does happen though--or maybe it is all a matter of perception? I haven't read either of the two memoirs you reference and can't speak to those.

gautami tripathy said...

I like to read memoirs in between fiction reading. Keeps me in perspective!

Early Salon moments

Anonymous said...

I do read and enjoy memoirs. I have read a few that seemed a little arrogant or preachy, but most don't come across that way to me.

Beth Kephart said...


Having written five memoirs and read countless others, I find this question so essential. I always lean toward those life stories that seek answers to universal questions—that use one life as a search, but do not declare that one life an exemplar.

Anonymous said...

I love memoirs. I really, really do. The one that comes to mind immediately is Elizabeth Gilbert's Eat Pray Love. Either you want to be her best friend or else you can't stand her. I wrote my review of Eat Pray Love over a year ago and it is still one of my most commented on posts. The comments range from love her, hate her. And the comments aren't about the book necessarily, but about her as an individual.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm. I'm reading a memoir right now, and while I can see how the author could be perceived as arrogant, I'm not sure that I'd consider her to be so. As Kerrie said, a memoir is necessarily self-focused. The memoirist has set out to write about their own life and what it's taught them, and they're going to have to examine themselves in order to do so properly.

I rarely have a problem with this, but I do think this setup has the potential to come across as arrogant. It's a fine line, and I suspect it may be the reader who crosses not, not the author. Some readers are going to find each individual memoirist's life engaging and inspiring; others will feel that the author's tone and approach give too much weight to their own wondrousness.

Sarah at SmallWorld said...

I love the memoir genre, although I don't always love memoirs. I have a Sunday Salon post called "On Memoirs" here:

Amy said...

Kerrie...I agree it's hard for a memoir not to be self-focused!

Wendy..I think you're right that it might be a matter of perception.

Guatami...probably a good time to read them. Maybe I should read more I do generally enjoy them.

Kathy...very interesting!

Beth...thanks for weighing in! I see what you're saying. Sometimes I think there are different kinds of memoirs that serve different purposes?

Natasha...I haven't read that one, but remember reading a lot of people having different viewpoints about it.

Memory--I agree that the set-up definitely has the potential for it. I'll have to keep my eyes out for your next review of a memoir. ;)

SmallWorldatHome--i'm off to check out your post!

Ana S. said...

I have only read a handful of memoirs, so I haven't come across this problem yet. Maybe a reason why memoir authors can be perceived as arrogant is the fact that the very act of writing a memoir demands that they justify it somehow. They have to "sell" the book. They have to, in a way, explain why their life and achievements are unique and interesting enough for others to read about.

Anonymous said...

I have to admit that I don't enjoy certain memoirs because I feel that the author is self-centered. It has only happened with two - one of them being Educating Esme. Some memoirs though, I absolutely love. It depends on the author!

Anonymous said...

I read a lot of memoirs and for the most part I enjoy them, but there have been a few where the author was just a bit too self-centered (even for a memoir).

Florinda said...

Most of the nonfiction books that I read are memoirs. I haven't come across very many where the writer struck me as arrogant. Whiny victim, sometimes; clueless, sometimes; self-involved, yes, but as other commenters have noted, the person is telling his or her own story, so it's understandable. And for me, the story matters - if it doesn't interest me, the memoir, and its writer, probably won't either.

S. Krishna said...

I totally agree with you - I've read a few memoirs and never found the author arrogant. I don't even know if the thought would occur to me while reading!

Anonymous said...

I do read memoirs, in fact that is one of my fav genre. I have read a book called 'The beloved witch' which is an autobiography of the only certified witch in India. Ins pits of the book being interesting I found the author extremely arrogant and vain.

Amy said...

Nymeth..this is a good point. I suppose the same can be said of bloggers. ;)

Saveophelia..I went to check out the Amazon reviews and found them pretty divided. It's funny, b/c in other places arrogance really bothers me, but it didn't in this book or didn't enough for me to remember it a year later when I read Dewey's thoughts. I do remember wondering if it had been a blog. I think it was a diary. Which does make it a bit different than a regular memoir.

Mangomissives...a common theme I'm hearing!

Florinda...well said! I think perhaps that's why both Esme's and Nuala's stories interested me. I could still learn from their stories, and I guess if they were arrogant, I overlooked it somehow.

Swapna...I was just too caught up in the story, I guess. that sounds really interesting!!!

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