On the Politics of Personality in Memoir
[image description: a stock image of an open book on fire. Don’t worry, I didn’t actually burn a book.]
I think most people who know me would say I’m generally an easygoing person. I tend to like nearly everyone I meet unless they give me a good reason not to. Barring any scandals or problematic behavior I tend to assume the authors whose books I read are good people––especially since I try not to read books by people who participate in assholery.
When I’m reading fiction, I’m so immersed in the story that I’m not thinking about the author. Because I know the story is imagined, even if there are some true elements, I’m not considering the way the author themselves might draw from their own life or otherwise show up in the text.
Memoir is a different story. By nature of the genre, I’m constantly thinking about the author, both as a person and a professional at their craft. I also realize as a memoirist/essayist myself that no matter how raw, authentic, and confessional a memoir is, the author is never truly bearing it all on the page. That’s understandable because in order to live in the world as a sane person and be able to healthily contribute art of such a deeply personal nature, you need to have some boundaries.
That being said, often my favorite memoirs are those where, by the end, I feel like I know the author and we’re friends. This is somewhat ridiculous since logic would dictate that the author has no idea who I am just because I read their book, so we can’t possibly be friends.
Nonetheless, with most memoirs I read, I do walk away with some warm fuzzy feelings about the author. Or at least a positive association. I’ve spent so much time in their head it’s hard not to like them. But a few months ago I read a memoir by someone a lot of people in the literary community respect and have rated highly. I’d read other books in the same genre recently and enjoyed them all, so I had no reason to think I wouldn’t like this one too.
Instead, I couldn’t have been more repulsed by a book. (I’m not going to say what it is per my positive reviews only policy, but if you email me I’ll tell you privately.) The author detailed a violent sex fantasy fairly early on and it was offered without any thoughtful commentary on how problematic such behavior might be and that section negatively influenced my reading of the rest of the book. Even when the author was making good points, ones that made sense and were smart and not at all violent or mean-spirited, it was still hard for me to listen to.
I realized the reason was because I’d already decided based on the earlier impression that I didn’t like her. At the time she dropped her violent fantasies into the story, she hadn’t built up enough rapport with the reader for readers to give her the grace to tell such a troublesome story. It’d be like someone making a terrible first impression at a party and you deciding that you didn’t want to be friends with that person. Even if you find out later that person is perfectly lovely and just made a bad first impression, it conflicts with what you witnessed.
That’s how I felt reading this book. I might not have disliked the book so much if I’d gotten to know the author better before the problematic parts (maybe? I’m trying to be generous here). But the way it was presented, especially without thoughtful context, just made it sound like the drama was manufactured purely for the sake of the memoir OR that the author hadn’t processed it enough to be writing about it in a meaningful way.
To be clear, authors are not obligated to make themselves likable or palatable to readers, especially where their personal lives are concerned. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences to not doing so. It’s this author’s right to share her violent sex fantasies just as it’s my right to not particularly like her or her book as a result.
I haven’t decided if I’ll read her other books. I recognize that there are things I could learn from her, but I’ll have to decide whether I’m better off learning those things from other authors. After all, reading a memoir is spending a lot of time in someone else’s head and no one wants to spend time in the head of someone they don’t particularly like.
There are too many books out there to be hanging out with people you don’t like.