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In The Art of Memoir, Mary Karr is part writing manual, part diatribe

The Art of Memoir
Mary Karr

We live in the most autobiographical era of human history, documenting and sharing the minutiae of our daily lives. It's hard to know what impact this will have on memoirs yet unwritten: If you remember the sweet crunch of an apple you had in your lunch box on the first day of school, but an old Instagram photo reveals that it was an orange, which is truer: the taste in your mouth or the picture of a fruit you do not remember?

While the taste that lingers in your mouth might be most salient, a sensory truth wouldn't be truthful enough for a memoir today. Memoir, as a genre, has been under intense scrutiny since that watershed moment in 2006 that saw James Frey tumble from Oprah poster boy to flailing pariah. An investigation into Frey's best-selling memoir of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, resulted in the accusation that he had betrayed millions of people. At first, Frey asserted that the memoir reflected the "essential truth" of his life (it tasted like an apple, if you will), though later, under further pressure, he confessed to having fabricated significant portions of the book (it was actually an orange).

The fact that A Million Little Pieces was initially shopped around as a novel tends to be forgotten. When my first novel, Mouthing the Words, was about to be published in the United Kingdom, my British publisher asked whether it couldn't be promoted as memoir. But how could I possibly publish this story about a child who had been sexually abused as my own when it didn't reflect my own experience? Sure, I identified with many of the protagonist's feelings, but isn't that what writing and reading are about? From a publishing perspective though, I got the sense that if something read like truth and borrowed enough facts from an author's bio, it was legitimate to market it as such.

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But that was in 2000, six years before the world knew of Frey's betrayal and his publisher offered refunds to those who felt they had been victims of fraud. Frey took the fall, yet all the interested parties were invested in, if not exactly the deception, the willing suspension of doubt. A lot of money was riding on it: Five million copies were sold.

The kind of scrutiny the Frey case raised has pushed us to go further in our attempts to both acknowledge memoir's conceits and work with and against them.

It has never been a secret that a writer uses narrative technique in the telling of his or her own story. There are ways in which our stories are framed and narrated for effect, there are moments of compression and expansiveness that don't necessarily reflect the time it took for certain events to be lived, we leave out the boring uneventful stuff and make omissions for reasons of poeticism or unity or preservation – of ourselves and the relationships we hope will survive the memoir's publication. We focus on what is salient to us at a particular moment, we link experiences through time, finding parallels and thematic resonance, we craft a story so that our lives have texture and meaning and are something more than simply a recollection or chronology of fact.

This has never been a secret because this is what we all do, whether we are are writers or not. We make sense of our lives by ordering events in narrative form; we find and construct meaning and identity in this way. At a minimum, when we tell someone else a story, we give it a beginning, middle and end. We add humility, heroism, pathos, humour. Perhaps we end with a lesson we did not see in the moment of the event, but find only in the aftermath, in the telling.

David Shields, author of the manifesto Reality Hunger, goes as far as to say that "anything processed through memory is fiction." He expresses disappointment with Frey, not because he "is a liar but [because] he isn't a better one. He should have said, 'Everyone who writes about himself is a liar.' "

So how then do we deal with this persist problem of truth?

Karl Ove Knausgaard and a number of other writers have confronted the challenge of factual representation by blurring genre distinctions. Knausgaard's six-volume My Struggle is a series of "autobiographical novels." By resisting the charge of memoir, he may be pointing to the impossibility of being anything but a flawed or unreliable narrator of one's own life. But he may also be having his cake and eating it too: I, for one, am tired of the metafictional pretension of novels with characters named after their authors.

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Those who persist and risk the claim to memoir do so with all the awareness of the pains and pitfalls of the past decade. Often, they necessarily engage in some kind of metacommentary as they write the story, asking what truth is, acknowledging the conceits of memoir, interrogating themselves in the attempt to, as Mary Karr writes, seek "the truth of memory – your memory and character – not of unbiased history." At a minimum, they preface their story with an ass-covering disclaimer about the fallibility of memory.

Karr has been on both sides of that watershed moment in 2006, publishing The Liars' Club, her first of three critically acclaimed and commercially successful memoirs, in 1995. She would later be both praised and cursed for her part in spawning a generation of misery memoir, a genre with remarkable persistence despite controversy.

On the subject of Frey, Karr is clear. "Truth may have become a foggy, fuzzy nether area. But untruth is simple," she writes in her new collection of pieces about memoir, a book with the uninspiring title The Art of Memoir. In an interview with the Paris Review in 2009, she said: "It pissed me off when I saw James Frey on Larry King saying, 'You know, there's a lot of argument about the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.' You know what? There isn't. If it didn't happen, it's fiction. If it did happen, it's non-fiction."

On the whole, Karr doesn't seem particularly interested in the more sophisticated conversation about these issues that has developed over the years of her career, including 30 years teaching the subject of memoir. She draws a line, and not just as a way of honouring a contract with the reader. She is more interested, at least in the earlier pieces in this collection, in speaking about the contract with the self. If you make stuff up, or rest comfortably with what you think you know, you're never going to learn who you are. "You'll never unearth the more complex truths, the ones that counter the convenient first take on the past."

She directs these words to the aspiring memoirist. Despite some attempt to promote this book as one for the general reader, it is really a book for the former, through even the aspiring memoirist will have to pick and choose what is relevant and helpful here with regards to her own pursuit. This book is an erratically tempered beast: part writing manual, part defence, part diatribe, part textual analysis, part hagiography. She has spread herself too thin, addressing too many subjects in not enough depth, including several pieces that feel more reactionary and less digested than others. There is little in the way of a persistent unifying thread here beyond things Mary Karr has thought about that relate to memoir.

All her work is peppered with a down-homey "Redneckese" (her term) that probably endears her to as many as it alienates. While I appreciate the politics at work in claiming a native diction, when terms like "horse dookey" appear in the middle of an otherwise poetic and intelligent sentence, it is a jarring disruption that can undermine a thoughtful point. That diction contributes to a sense of false modesty that pervades the book, with repeated assertions that she is no authority on the subject.

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Occasionally, I'll pick up and reread parts of Anne Lamott's Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, seeking some intelligent company when I'm feeling un- or under-writerly. Karr's collection might offer something of the same to a writer who is a fan of her work. But where she expresses hope that for a general reader this collection might prompt "some reflection about the reader's own divided selves and ever-morphing past," she does a disservice to the genre. Why not read a thoughtful memoir instead?

Camilla Gibb is the author, most recently, of the memoir This Is Happy.

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