October 2007

Sarah Statz


The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading and Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson

For the love of God, can we get past James Frey already?
It is not, in all fairness, author Thomas Larson’s fault that the state of the memoir in American publishing is a topic that has been done to death. But the seemingly endless fracas about memoirs and their authors’ remembered truths (not to mention what might make a memoir a “book,” rather than a memoir; quick, ask Augusten Burroughs) means that now might not be the best time to read Larson’s The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative.
Which is a shame, because it’s a fairly interesting entry in the old writers-on-writing and literary criticism genre. Larson, a writer with the San Diego Reader and “facilitator of private memoir-writing groups” considers such various questions as how autobiographies and memoirs differ, how different authors approach the process of remembering and writing their stories, and provides different examples of numerous subgenres within the broader category. What makes the book particularly valuable is Larson’s obvious familiarity with and discussion of some of the biggest titles in the field: when discussing the “voice of childhood” he uses Jill Ker Conway’s The Road from Coorain as an example; in the chapter on sudden memoirs, or memoirs which “examine a most recent life phase,” the example is Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius
Larson also weaves stories from his own life and from the lives and writing of his memoir students into the narrative; this is often less effective than his more literary analysis of others’ memoirs. Assertions like “I had torn through the caul; divorce had freed me,” while obviously sincerely meant, seem out of place in a book whose dust jacket promises that it will “explore the craft and purpose of personal narrative.” Such personal statements seem to be offered in the spirit of examples of autobiographical writing, but really only serve to muddle the text. Had Larson trusted his reader, I think he actually could have gotten two books out of his material: his own memoir, and a solidly written treatise on what makes memoirs tick.
What the book does have going for it is Larson’s writing, which is much clearer and better than many more academic books on this subject, and the wide-ranging nature of his examples. He also provides substantive notes and a handy bibliography, which make the book a valuable reference source. True, you may have to postpone reading it until you can hear the names “Frey” and “Burroughs” without wanting to throttle someone, but hopefully that time will come (for all of us) sooner rather than later.
The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing Personal Narrative by Thomas Larson
Swallow Press/Ohio University Press, 2007
ISBN-13: 978-0-8040-1101-3
211 pages