Excerpt from The Postmodern Memoir

First published in The Writer's Chronicle, March/April 2012. Purchase the original here.

As the literary descendent of biography and journalism, it is no wonder that memoir (as a genre), has a rocky relationship to the truth. Like the artistic child born to scientific parents, it defies expectations. On the one hand, it is reportage, expected to convey facts; on the other, it is art, expected to reinvent the world. There is no greater proof of the unease this duality creates than the constant battle over what constitutes truth in nonfiction. Every year, another sensational memoir is released, only to be torn apart by investigative journalists – and rightfully so. These are not books that play with objective truth in order to better recreate the author’s subjective experience, but ones that toss the truth aside entirely for the author’s gain. For these writers, truth is simply a marketing ploy, and readers are right to feel angry and manipulated. But is it possible for writers who perceive the world as a collection of competing truths, where the “real” answer may never be known, to honestly write a work of nonfiction? And if so, what would it look like?

In the aftermath of World-War-II, the entire concept of truth in literature came under question. The brutality of war tested the belief in perfection and progress. Authors tried to replicate for their readers the state of not knowing what was true or good. They moved away from nonfiction like George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, which tried earnestly to set down the “truth” of the Spanish Civil War. Instead, they wrote books like Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in which the impossible brushed up against the all-too-real. They found inspiration in the formal experimentations of the great modernist writers, like Gertrude Stein and James Joyce. They mimicked the linguistic playfulness of these earlier authors, but with an entirely different intention: instead of breaking language apart and looking for its purest form, they used words to undermine meaning, and embraced the ironic.

As the children raised in this chaotic literary moment begin to write their memoirs, it is not surprising that they are looking to recreate this sense of confusion. For these authors, it is not enough to assume that readers acknowledge the unknowability of objective fact. They are consciously creating books in which the unreliable narrator is themselves. They are not trying to report on their lives from the outside, but rather, to replicate for the reader the experience of living them.

Like the original postmodernists, they are interested in exploring those areas where the metanarrative of truth is at best useless, and at worst, stands in the way of actual comprehension. By highlighting their own bias and doubt, they are presenting a more honest depiction of life. Furthermore, while they diminish the trust of the reader in the author-as-narrator, they strengthen the reader’s trust in the author-as-writer: in a genre rocked by scandal, the writer who admits her own faults seems more reliable than the writer who presents herself as perfect. This is a dangerous line to walk, and the writer who goes too far stands the chance of loosing all authority and being disregarded.

So how to do it? The old adage “show, don’t tell” applies in creating the narrative “I” in memoir, as much as in fiction. The postmodern memoir experientially creates in the reader a conscious resistance to the narrative, which replicates the author’s own ambivalence towards the possibility of orderly narratives in life. What follows are three techniques some contemporary writers are employing to this end: switching from first-person to second or third, creating a nonlinear structure, and using fiction (openly) within the memoir. This is not an exhaustive list, but rather a starting point for finding commonalities in this new form. As more authors create their own unstable histories, this list will grow.

Purchase the full version here.