The Ego and I
Column Editor: Thomas W. Leonhardt (Retired, Eugene, OR 97404) <[email protected]>
For those who read my last column, you must be reminded of the trailers at the end of each episode of “Arrested Development” where Ron Howard tells viewers what to expect in the next show except that those events never transpire. I promised more stories of book sellers I have known but it is that time of year again when Foreword Magazine ships boxes of books to volunteer readers, so I have been busy reading in two categories, Autobiography/Memoir and Essays.
As I read, I ask myself, what makes a good memoir? How does a good essay differ from a poor essay and what are some of the elements of each? I have enjoyed several of the books even though I didn’t think that they deserved one of the top three ratings or even an honorable mention. Others offended me. There is no other word to describe my negative reaction to them. Some of the writing was technically competent, some was hackneyed and awkward. I used to hate it when a professor scribbled that “Awkward” next to something that I had written. Awkward? How? What should or could I have written? But now I understand that sometimes a phrase is awkward and there is nothing more to be said. It is up to the writer to mull it over and come up with something better. That is what a good editor does. A good editor questions and challenges a writer to reconsider and rewrite or excise a word, a passage, a paragraph, or an entire section. It has happened. Just ask Thomas Wolfe, James Jones, or many another writer who had something to say and knew how to say it but sometimes had trouble knowing what to cut. When does less mean more?
When writing book reviews, you have an obligation to explain in as much detail and clarity as you can what you like or don’t like and why. It is not enough, despite the current atmosphere of blogging and television journalism, to simply discard a piece of writing. Everyone is an expert in today’s atmosphere of non-stop communication, but no one seems to have any cognitive authority, an authority based on education, knowledge, and background. Opinions are woven with opinion, hearsay, envy, rancor, deep-seated emotional feelings, and ideologies. If I don’t agree with you, you must be at fault, but nuanced discussion of differences and resources seem nonexistent. We don’t have time to listen respectfully to informed discourse that is backed up by facts. Presidential hopefuls are paraded as debaters but who appear as naked emperors in a forum meant to win points on spin, draw laughs with vapid jokes, and destroy opponents through ad hominem attacks. We deserve better, and authors, no matter how awful I might regard their books, deserve a reasoned decision before they are relegated to the bottom of the pile.
When reading essays, especially personal essays, and autobiographies and memoirs, it is important to separate one’s personal feelings about topics and judge the writing on style and substance. Both must be present to deserve a top three ranking, and substance is to be preferred over style. Having nothing to say but saying it well reminds me of the graduate student explaining in great detail courses, theories, and favorite professors. In fact, one of the memoirs that I read contained much about the author’s classes (they were dance classes but still boring), her dorm room, and her roommate. It didn’t help that her roommate was Madonna Ciccone, a fellow dance major at the University of Michigan.
In too many instances, the writing has been mechanically competent but flat and lifeless. Most lives are boring, so there must be more to a successful memoir than a laundry list of one’s achievements even if they are worthy of mention.
But nineteen of the autobiographies/memoirs that I read for Book of the Year consideration were not about famous people, and, of the two with some degree of renown, one seemed to have cataloged every event in his life from birth until well into his eighties (he is still alive). I have no doubt that it is an important book from the standpoint of his stature in the music world. His career covered many decades, and he worked with some of the most talented people in the world. But the sheer detail at such length wears one out, and it becomes necessary to skim through the work looking for the interesting parts.
My number one choice was a memoir by a poet and painter who tells of her years in Brazil as the wife of the Canadian ambassador. Even when she describes a boring cocktail party, it sounds interesting. She lovingly describes people, plants, animals, the hired help, the Brazilian cities, customs, art, architecture, poetry, and food. The oppressive heat and mosquitoes are so vividly described, I found myself eager to go to Brazil, ready to change clothes several times a day when in the hot, humid states during spring and summer.
My second choice was about growing up in New Orleans in the 1950s and 1960s as the son of two wealthy eccentrics, one of whom was Ruth of Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. The author is telling his story, but mostly it is through his parents, their activities, and the city of New Orleans. As with the woman in Brazil, I had a longing to be a part of that New Orleans culture that can also be found in A Confederacy of Dunces.
The third-place book was about growing up Italian in America, and, as with the others, the author tells of her life not as a litany of her accomplishments and activities in a vacuum but as part of a large Italian family that was assimilating into the American culture while being rooted in centuries-old customs brought from the old country.
These successes were personal stories but told within a social context and with reflection and insight. They had something to say and found an elegant way to say it.
Personal essays can fail for the same reasons memoirs fail. Yes, you love your children but do we need to know what kind of cereal they had for breakfast or that they had breakfast at all? Some things are universal, and breakfast, at least on the Upper Westside of Manhattan, is a given. The essayist I am thinking of would have benefited, too, by some close and sensitive editing. A lesson to be learned for personal essayists is that less is often more, and more is often excessive and tiring.
Another essayist writes about her time working on ranches in west Texas. Ranching is a hard life, but she never says so; she tells us so in loving detail but not wordy detail. She never comes right out and says, “Death is a constant in ranch life.” Instead, she pens small vignettes in which things go wrong, animals die, and people get hurt. She conveys this without preaching. Her essays and vignettes describe life and death on the ranch and on the prairie, but we are never told what to feel. She touches our feelings through her choice of words and events. It is often what she holds out of the story that grabs our attention and illuminates the story at hand.
Good writers learn to excise passages, no matter how well-written, that do not advance their story, no matter how beautiful the prose sounds. Mechanically competent prose will not overcome a lack of substance and boring remains boring no matter how grammatical.