How to Win at the Women’s Memoir Game

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Photo: Genevieve Naylor

Last week, the novelist Deborah Copaken Kogan had a piece in The Nation that made every female writer of my acquaintance cringe in at least some recognition. Kogan reports back from the front on what it’s like to be a woman who has multiple books to her name but few laurels, until recently, to go with them. She focuses on the particular horror she felt dealing with the packaging of her 2001 memoir of her experiences as a war photographer, Shutterbabe. She had wanted to title the thing Newswhore; her publisher insisted on the other. She had to fight off a pink cover dominated by a naked cartoon torso and a strategically placed camera. The book was not taken as seriously as Kogan hoped; reviewers registered complaints about her feminism, which she feels were illegitimate. Some seemed unduly interested in painting her as promiscuous.

It’s hard to tell whether she’s right about the criticism without reading Shutterbabe, and I haven’t. But Kogan’s story still has a few spit-take moments. She reacted to her bad reviews by calling one critic — Daniel Mendelsohn, then writing for New York — at home, twice, because “I was just calling for his e-mail address.” (I feel like I’ve tried that on crushes before.) She seems surprised that he found this an unwarranted intrusion. And the matter of the title, well: Is there a world in which Newswhore is really a better title than Shutterbabe? For once I’d prefer to stay put.

Still, Kogan has a point that people can get awful condescending about memoirs like hers, and their disdain has sexist implications. Shutterbabe was a best-seller, as are many books of this ilk. Cat Marnell and Lena Dunham recently scored sweet book deals on precisely that promise. And the popularity of, say, xoJane just goes to show that the appeal of women’s “personal stories” transcends dead-tree literary forms. So someone is reading these stories, and given that most book readers are female, it’s most likely women.

But their very fashionableness is what makes “confessionalism” a prime target for the sort of critics who worry about the Decline of American Culture. Marnell, for example, got a recent sideswipe from Giles Harvey in The New Yorker as an “oversharing blogger.” He inserted this without context in the middle of an admittedly critical piece on several male “memoirs of failure” which made no reference to gender. So the Marnell name-drop raised the question: Why aren’t men’s books just “overshares,” and equally quickly dismissed?

It should go without saying that fear of the overshare is, in fact, a very old refrain about How Women Read and Write, but let’s look at the history anyway. Go into the novels of Jane Austen or even L.M. Montgomery and you will find characters being excoriated for reading fiction themselves, on grounds of frivolity. Accusations of silliness (and its close cousin, sluttiness) have plagued just about every woman writer you can think of. The “confessional” impulse has actually never been strictly a Woman Thing — just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up or Robert Lowell’s poetry, for starters. But the accusation that a writer has taken it to extremes, beyond art into sensationalism, usually is leveled at us alone. James Frey only got in trouble because he lied about having had teeth pulled without novocaine — not because of the machismo inherent in that humblebrag.

Take, for example, an eighteenth-century Irish poet named Laetitia Pilkington. She happened to be good friends with Jonathan Swift, of A Modest Proposal fame, and he mentored her. Then, one day, her husband broke in on her during a kind of tryst (she claimed she was simply reading a book with her handsome young doctor companion) and drove her from the house. After that, Swift renounced her as a “profligate whore.” So until the 20th century, her gossipy, hilarious Memoirs were rarely considered on their own merits, even as they were plundered by biographers desperate for good information on Swift himself. (Apparently he was a bit of a jerk; Laetitia records his excoriations and even suggests he beat her.) In fact, people were so dismissive of her that no less than Virginia Woolf herself came to her defense: “If ever a woman wanted a champion, it is obviously Laetitia Pilkington.”

Not that Woolf won that game. The turn-of-the-century diarist (the old term for memoirist) Mary MacLane, whose books were very recently reissued and widely reviewed, got crap from the New York Times about her “maidenly desire for notoriety.” Even the talented Anne Sexton was said by the Times to have a bad habit of offering “tortured confessions [which] seemed to be personal yelps rather than universal cries,” an observation that few young women who read Sexton’s poetry could agree with. In 1998, Jonathan Yardley in the Washington Post complained that Susan Cheever’s memoir about her drinking habit was ugly, which “derives not from depictions of personal degradation but from the sense that the confession is less important than the notoriety and profit the author hopes to extract from it.”

Of late the trend is for women to throw the same criticism to other women: Toni Bentley went after Katha Pollitt’s 2007 collection of essays, Learning to Drive, calling Pollitt “shameless” and complaining that “It’s hard to tell if she’s coming into her own, trying to sell more books or has lost it entirely.” This sort of thing, coming as it did from someone who’d written a memoir about her preference for anal sex, sounds less like an actual criticism than a cry of frustration from someone who thinks she played the same game, and lost. A certain amount of self-awareness might have helped.

You don’t need to believe that Kogan, or Marnell, or Dunham, are as good as any of these predecessors to see what’s going on here. That women writers who have stood the test of time were hypocritically criticized in this way — it was a man, after all, who once said, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” — just goes to show that it really doesn’t matter how good you are. So, in one of those irritating paradoxes that is Being a Woman in the World Today, the only way to win is to try to leverage those arguments to your advantage. Are these attitudes sexist and irritating? Yes. Does that mean you have to give up? Well, no.

One way to cut critics to the quick is to concede up front that you’re in it for the cash. The poet and memoirist Mary Karr, for example, told everyone who would listen, upon publication of her third memoir Lit in 2009, that she did it for the money. “I don’t write my memoirs for charity,” she later told a literary nonfiction conference. “I really do write to generate income.” Which makes Karr sound a bit more calculating than I think she actually is. The big deals, like Dunham’s $3.7 million (still hurts to type) and Marnell’s $500,000 suggest there’s a ton of money in that choice. But for your average writer, we are probably talking a few months’ rent, maybe even a year without having to scramble. Karr’s advance for Lit, though it came on the heels of not one but two national best-selling memoirs, no doubt looked a lot less amazing when stretched out over the seven years it took her to write the book. In an essay published in the collection Why We Write earlier this year, Karr wrote that “I still don’t support myself as a writer. I support myself as a college professor. I couldn’t pay my mortgage on the revenue from my books.”

Whatever the financial rewards, Karr’s example certainly shows that you don’t necessarily have to go all the way down the rabbit hole to retrieve your deserved cash. Each of Karr’s books does have a picture of her on the cover, which certainly literary quarters get (unreasonably) snotty about. But they are not, and have never been, pink. They do not have titles like Newswhore or “I Really Want Good Traffic So I’m Going to Tell You About the Time I Took a Video of Myself Masturbating in the New York Post Bathroom.” They are taken seriously, and this even though Karr describes her sexuality in quite extensive detail.

That getting taken seriously thing is also true of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. It was even true, yes, of Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation or Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. All blockbuster sellers, all memoirs, most detailing some partaking of the sex. All reviewed in the Times, some negatively and others positively. Each of those women might have some tale to tell about their marketing campaigns and their reviews, of course. In one particularly egregious example, Vogue photoshopped Strayed into unrecognizability, as she discusses here. It’s been a source of continual puzzlement to me that Strayed’s memoir was not nominated for the major literary prizes. But there are lots of levels of “seriousness,” is the point. And not every book will get there.

In other words: Not all female memoirs are not treated as, well, Shutterbabes. You can argue that’s because in these other books the sex is less prominent and the focus tends to be on personal tragedies that are more sympathetic to a wider audience. But I think it’s something else; there are, actually, degrees of craft involved in writing yourself, as Nora Ephron put it, as the heroine of your own life. Women who win at the memoir game know the rules and decide to game the system. And then their talent and savvy can take them a long way. After all, Strayed, who was famously the anonymous advice columnist Sugar, once put it this way: “Write so blazingly good that you can’t be framed.” That’s really the only way to emerge the victor.