Reviewing Memoirs: Do You Cross the Line?

May 30, 2014 | By | 27 Replies More
Marti Szabo

Marti Szabo, Memoir Author from the United States

“Stick to the writing!”

In workshops as we respond to a memoir piece someone has just read, I remind myself and others that there’s a dangerous line we cross when we don’t stick to the writing.

Hearing a personal story written candidly, spontaneously, with no attempts at camouflage, it’s easy to respond with empathy, “oh, you poor dear,” or “how brave you were.” Or, to respond by judging the writer’s life decisions – agreeing with, or worse, second guessing them.

No writer wants to hear that. That’s not why we write. Comments like that do not support the writing. They detract from it. They distract from it, whether with empathy or judgment. Either way, they cross the line – a hard line to define sometimes, but a real danger zone when it comes to reviewing or giving feedback on memoir writing.

Recently I finished re-reading Ingrid’s Betancourt’s outstanding memoir, Even Silence Has an End. I’m not the crying type, but I had tears in my eyes in the closing pages. This is eloquent writing. Yes, I loved the adventure of the story and the rain forest environment, but it is Betancourt’s obvious integrity-filled effort to write down her inner experiences, self-examinations and observations of those tortuous years, and how carefully she describes those moments when freedom finally arrives that make this book stand high above the sea of standard memoir.

Betancourt’s writing is so intelligent and vulnerable. You can tell she is not seeking more than to tell her truth. (And that she’s smart and capable and can do it artfully in words.)

The Guru Looked Good: A Memoir by Marta Szabo

The Guru Looked Good: A Memoir by Marta Szabo

After turning the last page and taking a moment, I went to see what the reviewers had said. I started to read one that sounded in tune with my own sentiments. The reviewer wrote several paragraphs about how moving the book was.

But then, the reviewer’s voice changed direction, criticizing Betancourt for making money on the book and for charging high fees to speak, telling us that no one in Colombia can stand her.

What has that got to do with the writing? Absolutely nothing.

I am not at all convinced that Ingrid and I would fall in love should we ever sit down for a cup of tea together. I can imagine she might be very hard to get close to. She’s a tough cookie and she doesn’t suffer fools. (I’d like to see her and that reviewer in the ring together — ha! I know where I’d put my money.)

But that has nothing to do with the masterful work Ingrid has done creating this memoir.

So, yes, I loathe it when people think they are reviewing a memoir and really what they are reviewing are the decisions made in the narrative, the life choices willingly exposed.

Recently I heard Aaron Sorkin (the creator of West Wing and Newsroom) say that he doesn’t think anyone’s life could survive public scrutiny. I love that. I agree.

I guess that’s why many people are afraid to write probing memoir; they know the piranhas are out there.

Piranhas don’t scare me though. And they certainly do not scare Ingrid Betancourt. That’s one reason why her book is so good.

So, memoir writers – prepare to be bitten, and dare to be brave. Memoir reviewers, be you piranhas or empaths, remind yourself, “Stick to the writing!”

Marta Szabo is the co-director of Authentic Writing and author of two memoirs, The Guru Looked Good and The Imposters. With her husband Fred Poole, she teaches Authentic Writing, offering workshops in Manhattan and across the Northeast United States. They founded and hold the Memoir Festival every other year at Omega Institute, gathering together the most accomplished writers of the form. Follow Marta on Twitter at @MemoirWriter.

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Category: Contemporary Women Writers, US American Women Writers, Women Writing Memoirs

Comments (27)

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  1. Gill James says:

    Absolutely agree that the focus should be on the writing. But it does seem callous to totally ignore the issue and how brave the writer has been in sharing.
    This is something I deal with regularly in teaching autobiography.
    I issue a health warning before my students start and have a pickup plan in place.
    We have developed the habit of acknowledging the emotion after the critique.

  2. Lori Schafer says:

    This is actually why I don’t like biographies of famous people in any form. I don’t really want to know that Joan Crawford was a child abuser or that Jim Morrison was a jerk precisely because it does color how I feel about their work. But that doesn’t mean I judge their performances by their personal lives. And if a reviewer can’t keep those two aspects of a person separate in his or her mind, then they really ought to think twice about reviewing the work.

  3. TheseWomensWork says:

    This brings up an interesting point that I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In America, I think we tend to mesh the personal and public, whereas in Europe (at least in the past), the two were kept more separate. One of my favorite writers, Anais Nin, complained once that this was one of the problems with American public figures – we can’t look just at their work but we also look at what they did or did not do in their private lives and judge their work accordingly. The example that comes to my mind is the legendary actress Joan Crawford. I grew up in the 80’s, when domestic violence was coming to the forefront of the women’s movement and Christina Crawford’s “Mommie Dearest” came out. I remember how Joan Crawford suddenly fell way out of favor and people were disregarding the great body of work that she did for film because of the horrendous acts of violence against her children that were described in the book. It was as if the major accomplishments she had achieved in film were nothing compared to the fact that she was a child abuser.

    I try to look at a piece of art in and of itself, regardless of what the artist has or has not done in their private life. It’s not easy, especially since we have the media working against us, ready to crucify any artist for what he/she has or has not done in their private and public lives. But as a writer, I have respect for the artistic work and I know that what a person has or has not done in their personal lives does not make their work better or worse (even when it’s a memoir based on that personal life).


    • Marta says:

      Hi Tam, that is so well put. I am glad to hear you stand up for the art for its own sake. It is a good strong reminder. Thank you!

  4. Rosemary says:

    The thing that would bother me about publishing a memoir is not what people I don’t know think or say – it’s the people I do know that worry me. I have read before that many people can’t write memoir until their parents are no longer around to read it, and I completely identify with that.

    • Marta says:

      Hi Rosemary — many people, I believe, let this concern (a valid one) stop them from writing. What I feel very very strongly is that one must write these stories, truly, utterly, without thought of how they might impact anyone else. This alone is a crucial endeavor. After that, how and if to go public is an entirely different matter and can be dealt with at that point. Do not let anything stop you from the writing though!

  5. Shelagh Plunkett says:

    I wrote a memoir of my adolescence spent in Guyana and on Timor, Indonesia during times of political upheaval. I chose to write it in the voice and with the level of knowledge that I had at the time. I was 13 when we moved to Guyana from Canada. Two reviewers tore into the book because it lacked an analysis of post-colonial politics and failed to reflect on expatriot privelege. They had next to nothing to say about the writing or about the book that it is (as opposed to the book that it isn’t but which they believed it should be). As a memoirist of course I want readers to respond to the content but not exclusively. I worked hard at the writing of the “story” and hope that it is what moves people when they read my book.

    • Marta says:

      Dear Shelagh, this is EXACTLY the kind of memoir I like to read, and the kind I try to write — describing the experience as it was then, without hindsight — if the narrator of the story was not thinking about post-colonial politics then it is not relevant.

  6. Jo Carroll says:

    Oh yes. When I wrote Over the Hill (a travel memoir) my mentor kept telling me to write about things that were close to me, and not stuff you could see on the telly. That meant telling my daughters things I hoped they’d never need to know (like a man with a gun in Lucknow). But my mentor was right – it’s what the book needed.

    And the response has been interesting – some people think they know all the ins and outs of me because of what I’ve written. I don’t disabuse them (because they seem to quite like the ‘me’ they have read about!). But I could remind them that – while everything actually happened (I don’t make stuff up) – the way it’s written is what matters.

    • Marta says:

      “Some people think they know all te ins and outs of me because of what I’ve written.” Great line. That’s something I’m aware of too — no matter what each human being remains a mystery — even the ones who write memoirs!

  7. Lani says:

    I know, right? After writing a memoir, the last thing you want to read is any criticism about the choices you made and what you chose to share. However, after writing a memoir, chances are you can handle the peanut gallery! At least, I’m hoping so! Thanks 🙂

  8. Allison Merrill says:

    Thank you for this article. I absolutely agree with everything you wrote. I’ve been working on my memoir for the past 7 years, it’s not a long story, it’s just that I’m scared of those piranhas that don’t even exist yet. I appreciate your article very much. Thank you.

    • Marta says:

      Hi Allison, I hope you will take courage — I hate the thought of a memoir — once written — not being read! Best of luck to you.

  9. it always surprises (and angers) me when a book review is NOT about the book and what the reader’s experience is during reading it, and how they felt after reading it. i am not a professional book reviewer but in my reviews, i try very hard (and sometimes succeed!) to preserve the feeling of discovery, empathy and literary joy when i read a book, without adding any personal axe-grinding to the review.

  10. I’ve actually written a memoir of my wartime childhood but it’s still in the drawer – for the very reasons you are analysing. My piece on meeting my old darling was part of it.

    • Marta says:

      Dear Beryl — how wonderful that you wrote your story! How very sad that you have not brought it out of the drawer! You have many more allies than adversaries. I hope it will be read before too long. In any event, huge congratulations for the writing.

  11. Irene Hoge Smith says:

    If we agree that (as V. S. Pritchett may or may not have said) “It’s all in the writing. You get no credit for living,” then only the writing is fair game for critique. Thanks for this excellent piece.

  12. I review books and write personal essays, and you make a very good point: It’s tempting, especially when an author creates familiarity, to offer (sometimes qualified) approval of her LIFE instead of the work, so strong is the urge to high-five (or cry oneself to sleep, depending). It’s both poor form and inept critique, as it tells readers more about the critic’s inability to consider the work objectively than the thing we want them to buy or not. I’m personally grateful for any response to my work, but people who actually DISCUSS the work and not me or the circumstances I’m describing help expand my view of what’s possible and develop my craft. I strive to do the same, but still give in to an occasional knee-jerk high-five.

  13. “So memoir writers – prepare to be bitten and dare to be brave.” So true. Many people are judgmental when they read and review memoirs. Memoirists must have thick skins.

    • Marta says:

      Well, probably all artists need to have thick skins. And I don’t have one. I think it’s just something to be careful of as one reads and comments. As for worrying about whether I’ll get bitten or not because of what I write, writing is too important to let those naysayers control things!

  14. Tamara says:

    Great advice!

  15. Marta says:

    Goid point, Faith!

  16. I agree absolutely. It’s tough enough revealing those truths (as we see them) without having someone criticize the choices you’ve made. Without those choices, whether smart or not so smart, there might not be a story at all.

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