When Can't We Write About Family?

So there’s a minidebate in the NY Times this week about nonfiction writers writing about family, the painful and embarrassing moments. It arises from a book published in the U.K. and recently in the U.S., Julie Myerson’s The Lost Child, about her son’s “drug addiction,” told in horrifying tones. When I learned it was weed, I thought it all sounded overheated. (The Sunday NY Times review of it was even more overheated, with the (humorous?) tag, Reefer Madness:
After the many fake memoirs, I don’t trust the genre. The best books can convince the reader, of course. But in a case like the notorious James Frey, many readers had been suspicious before the news broke that he had faked much of it. (Notice the connection: Rehab, anyone?) The writers usually hide behind the old “that’s how I remember it” dodge, which I think works as long as no one is hurt by what you write. But many are basically juiced-up because the subject wouldn’t sell without some added drama. In plain English, they’re lying. Now if we’re talking about “making things up,” that’s what fiction does best. With style and pizzazz. Only fiction doesn’t sell as well as “nonfiction.” So these ‘memoirs’ are placed in that category because of the confessional craze, because they will sell better. Here are some writers responding to that question of What can you write about? in the NY Times:
The second guy is basically saying, Anything for a buck. It’s best not to know him. The other three do acknowledge the complexity of the issue, and the need for tact. It’s not like this is something that suddenly developed in the memoir craze. For centuries writers have written thinly veiled fiction (and less so, nonfiction) about their families: Vladimir Nabokov’s Speak, Memory (1951) is a classic. I don’t remember a single embarrassing, nasty incident in all that beautiful book. Too bad his son didn’t want to get high. I imagine Nabokov would have made it funny.
I’ve written about family in my novel The Fire Eaters, much fictionalized. I did speak with my mother and sisters, and some of them weren’t thrilled with some of their depictions, but then again, they were supportive, and the most dramatic moments, in general, were fictionalized. I left many events out that would be too painful. That’s another story, the one that hurts.

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