On Neil Genzlinger's "The Problem With Memoirs," a Witty Look at Bogus Memoirs in NY Times, or a Book Review With Balls, plus a ShoutOut to Karen Russell's "Swamplandia!"

I haven’t been blogging much lately because I’m caught in a vortex of Academic Hell, coping with various problems brought on by our sickly economy, and here’s to hoping it will end soon: the bad economy, that is. Academic Hell is generally a netherworld of neuroses and anxiety—the flames are usually papier mache, and the ragged clothing includes crewneck sweaters. But I just read a great piece that is worth sharing, Neil Genzlinger’s “The Problem With Memoirs,” here in the NY Times:

Here’s a paragraph: “That you had parents and a childhood does not of itself qualify you to write a memoir. This maxim, which was inspired by an unrewarding few hours with “Disaster Preparedness,” by Heather Havrilesky, is really a response to a broader problem, a sort of grade inflation for life experiences. A vast majority of people used to live lives that would draw a C or a D if grades were being passed out — not that they were bad lives, just bland. Now, though, practically all of us have somehow gotten the idea that we are B+ or A material; it’s the “if it happened to me, it must be interesting” fallacy.”
Why I like it so much: The world of book reviewing creates parameters that generally dissuade the writer from negative reviews, even if those are sometimes the most insightful (and funny). Many years ago I reviewed for the NY Times until I wrote a negative review of a rather overstuffed novel, and that was it. That’s how the censorship goes. They pull the plug on you. (Genzlinger is an editor there, so he has greater leeway.) What I do now, instead of blasting a bad book, is refuse to review it. But that negates the nasty fun. I can live with it, of course. Karma and all that. But still, the only reviewer I light up at seeing his name in the NY Times tends to be Joe Queenan, who gets to say nasty, funny things, but often about old books, instead of the new. From my sometimes insider look at memoirs, I think Genzlinger is right. I know of a memoir out right now by a person I know (I won’t name names) that I think is pretty much 90% b.s. But you wouldn’t know that from the jacket copy. It’s about a dysfunctional family. A story we all love, right?
Right now I’m reviewing Karen Russell’s new novel, Swamplandia! and am glad to report it’s a fun read, about a smalltime alligator themepark in Florida. And it’s blessedly not a bad memoir.

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