I Love You, Colson Whitehead

Mr. Whitehead, you’ve made me cry uncontrollably and now you make me laugh hysterically.

What is up with this ridiculously over-long memoir moment anyway? I don’t care that they’re all turning out to be fake — it’s completely understandable to me that they’re made up — life just doesn’t happen well-plotted and with the perfect dramatic arc that editors demand and audiences desire, and it’s certainly not as over-the-top as the public for lord knows what reason needs to believe. What upsets me is that I don’t understand why people right now are so untrustworthy, so disrespectful of the artistry of the novelist.

6 Comments

  1. Amen, Tonya! I still think it’s a bit odd that people freaked out so much around the James Frey incident , or the most recent event (the woman’s name escapes me). Sure, I guess I understand people being annoyed as it being sold as “memoir.” but ultimately, if it’s moving, does it really matter?!

  2. Sorry. TOTALLY misread that I think. haha. That’s what I get for commenting right when I wake up. Oops!

  3. Hi Matt! No, you’re right, that’s totally what I meant! Whitehead is making fun of the unbelievably over-the-top memoir that lo and behold ends up being made-up, but I think he’s also saying it’s ridiculous that the public wants this and the public need to believe in these overcoming adversity stories is what’s driving authors to exaggerate and even falsify things. Those stories are really good as STORIES (which I think is partly what he meant in his last sentence). It just makes me upset that nobody wants to trust in good fiction; they think a novel is unreal, a lie. It just goes back to how no one respects art anymore…

  4. I can understand why people get upset when something is sold as a memoir and its not, because I don’t think anyone likes to feel lied to. That makes sense to me. I don’t really understand the public’s appetite for memoirs though. I mean, I suppose when you read them you are getting a sort of truth, but it’s distorted by the author’s perceptions and the author’s desire, conscious or otherwise, to be perceived in a certain way by readers, and all sorts of other stuff. And all history, whether personal or not, is a kind of storytelling. In the end, I’m not sure that the kind of Truth one gets from reading a memoir is any more legitimate than what one gets from reading fiction.

    I think part of it might stem from this desire people have to tell THEIR story. I interned for a literary agency in college and I can’t even begin to tell you how many cancer/illness/disability memoir submissions we got, each from someone who thought their story was far more special and unique than it was. Which sounds terribly callous but is true.

    I’m not sure that I think the popularity of memoirs is a sign of people not respecting art though. In part because the best memoirs are highly artful and in part because the memoir, or autobiography since they’re often used interchangeably now and can be hard to distiguish between, is actually a much older genre than the novel. People have been writing (and reading) them since antiquity while the novel is much newer. Cultures that had far greater respect for art than ours–the ancient Greeks for example–had memoirs, plays, poems, but not novels. So I think that the memoir is something that has endured as it has largely because it is something that people have always wanted. And, really, the novel has never been a genre primarily concerned with producing high art, although it certainly has done so many times over the years. I think that interest in certain kinds of writing ebbs and flows–right now memoirs are very popular but that won’t always be the case. It’s just the current trend.

    That was thoroughly long-winded of me, but it’s a topic I’m very interested in. I’m glad you brought it up. :)

  5. Thanks Meg! I completely agree with the last line of your top paragraph — that’s what I was trying to say, but you said it much better!

    I agree that there are some really well-written memoirs out there, but I think there’s also a lot of crap too. Yeah, you’re right that the novel hasn’t been around forever; I guess I was also talking more generally of fiction though. I know (from my agent and from attending publishing events) that far far FAR more slots are reserved for nonfiction books in their yearly lists. I’ve been told repeatedly that it’s far more difficult to get a novel published than a memoir or a nonfiction book and someone even suggested I try to turn my novel into memoir, if possible. I think this is what makes authors fabricate. The editors / agents want a really good, dramatic story and it just didn’t happen that way in real life and the only way you can give them what they want is to exaggerate or even make things up.

    I don’t know if it’s always been this way in book publishing or not; I’ve been reading a lot of Norman Mailer lately and it seems like in his day (in his earlier years anyway) the novel was everything; it was everyone’s dream to write one — or in the case of publishers — to publish great ones. Now it seems that potential agents take a step back from you, as if you’re contaminated, when you try to pitch them a novel. You would know this better than I for working for an agency, but when I was looking for an agent, looking at their lists and their agency bios, so many said they only took nonfiction, or only 10%, 20% etc. fiction. One even said “if you have a novel, don’t send it to us unless it’s better than Steinbeck, better than Updike, better than Hemingway, better than everything that’s previously been published.” I swear it’s true! Who could live up to that? Although maybe they’re just saying that because of what you’ve said earlier — that they get so much crap they only want people who really believe that their book is that good (although it’s often the wackos who think that highly of themselves and will go ahead and send their book in….)

    And it’s the same for short stories. There are only a small handful of publications that take them anymore, in contrast to all the magazines who want narrative essays — either personal or profiles of someone else’s “heroic” or “life affirming” story.

    I hope you’re right and these trends will come and go!

    Sorry, to go on, whining like this. I hope I don’t sound too bitter :) I’m really not! Thanks for your thoughtful comment — you know so much about publishing. It’s very interesting hearing about all the submissions you got at your old agency; I always assume if anyone has the nerve to send anything out, it’s really really really good.

  6. You don’t sound bitter! I think you’re absolutely right that the bias is toward nonfiction and I think that’s partially a trend of the times and partially that it’s easier to sell. It’s much easier to say “This is about X and that’s why it’s interesting” than it is to sum up the things that make a novel beautiful and fascinating and moving. I don’t work in the acquisitions/editorial part of the field but I imagine it’s a hard balancing act. I’d say that the publishing company I work for now has a list that’s pretty evenly split between fiction and nonfiction, but the fiction we do is very commercial (as is the nonfiction, to be honest). Things are constantly changing though, so let’s keep our fingers crossed.

    As for people only sending out submissions to agents that are really, really good–one would hope, but it’s not the case more often than not! The agency I read for handled mostly romance during the time I worked there (I ended up knowing more about Harlequin than I ever wanted) and a lot of the stuff we got just unbelievably bad. And then you get the people who tell you they’re writing books because God told them to, the people who tell you their books are going to sell 100 million copies and then they’ll go on Oprah, etc. But I also read some things that I really, truly loved and that made it totally worthwhile. :)

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