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Thoughts on Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

In no organized order, here are some thoughts about post-9/11 war memoirs inspired by Ben Yagoda’s Memoir: A History, which I reviewed last week:

Memoirs dominate the publishing industry today, the way bad sitcoms dominated TV in the sixties. (I’m looking at you My Mother The Car.)

You want a memoir on how to be a hip dad? There are at least three. A memoir on eating locally? Got that too. Dog memoirs? Oh yeah, we’ve got those. Inspired by the success of Marley & Me, memoirists wrote and published at least ten dog memoirs, followed by sequels to Marley & Me, along with cat memoirs and an owl memoir.

I point this out to answer the question, “Eric, if you hate memoirs, why do you read them?” Because they are all I have. *tear*

Memoirs tend towards the extreme, the profane, or the noteworthy. Which is why war memoirs are so common. There has to be an angle, and nothing is more extreme than going to war.

Except, as I wrote in “Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?”, it isn’t enough to go to Iraq or Afghanistan. You have to fight in the bloodiest, most exciting battles possible.

Novels and literary fiction don’t have this restriction. A novelist can write about a regular guy and still be fascinating, more about style--how Updike presents Rabbit Angstrom--than it is about content--Rabbit Angstrom is a suburban dad.

Memoirs need to be true. Believe it or not, people more subjective than I am will argue with this. What separates The Last Tycoon from A Million Little Pieces? One is an autobiographical novel, the other a novelistic memoir.

But look at the case of Herman Rosenblatt. He wrote a “true” love story that took place during the Holocaust, and it initially garnered rave reviews. When it was revealed as a fake, the publishing company tried to release it as a novel, but it tanked. Why? “His story no longer had allure. To the extent a memoir is shown to be false, it loses its identity, its authority, and its power,” writes Yagoda.

Just ask Greg Mortenson about this phenomenon.

A novel, meanwhile, doesn’t lose its power if it is revealed to be partly autobiographical; if anything, it becomes more interesting.

Writing about yourself is impossible. My boy Rousseau lays out the problem, “[the autobiographer, memoirist] presents himself how he wants to be seen, not at all how he is. The sincerest of people are at best truthful in what they say, but lie by their reticence, and what they suppress changes so much what they pretend to reveal that in telling part of the truth, they tell none of it.”

Agreed. For the war memoir, doubly so. I can’t off the top of my head recall anyone regretting any decisions they made in any memoir I’ve read.

(Except for Lone Survivor. Luttrell explicitly says that voting to spare the lives of the goat herders who compromised his unit was, “the stupidest, most southern-fried, lamebrained decision I ever made in my life. I must have been out of my mind.” This is, however, the only thing he regrets.)

Human memory is fallible. Which means every memoir is fallible. Some anecdotes:

- David Carr, when writing his own memoir, re-investigated his life as if he were a reporter investigating someone else. He found out some of his memories were almost completely wrong.

- Andy Rooney opens his memoir with this classic line, "If you're pleased with the way you've been remembering some of the major events of your life, don't set out to write a book about them. The chances are, they weren't that way at all."

- From Neitzsche, “I have done that,” says my memory. “I cannot have done that,” says my pride, and remains inexorable. Eventually--memory yields.”

- Yagoda cites multiple, multiple, multiple psychological experiments have proved that memory is fallible. Researchers can implant false memories, our memories of notable events are later softened or changed.

- Check out this episode of RadioLab. It covers three or four of the studies from Yagoda’s book.

In short, memory is fallible. Stressed memory doubly so. Writing memoirs--war memoirs, again, doubly so--is kind of pointless. So don’t bother with a memoir. Write a novel.

One comment

I have two comments. First, relating to “Why Do War Memoirs Rock So Hard?” Robert Jordan fought in one piddling battle, and that’s a defining war novel, (For Whom the Bell Tolls. Thee)

Second, a novel is also about discovering the character/s. A memoir is arguably about the actions/events of that character. Deeply introspective memoirs don’t sell as well, notable memoirs do. Novels try to understand, think Catcher in the Rye as another example.