Monday, March 28, 2011

Entertaining Book Reviews

Yesterday I read (somewhat belatedly after its appearance) one of the most entertaining book reviews I’ve ever had the pleasure to come across. Part of the reason it was so entertaining was that I instinctively agreed with just about everything the reviewer had to say, even though I hadn’t read any of the four books being reviewed and was therefore in no position to make an informed judgment about any of them (not that I am shy about making uninformed judgments, as my fellow booksellers will gladly tell you). But I found myself agreeing so vigorously with the overall thesis of the essay that I was inclined to accept the reviewer’s opinion of each book purely on faith. (I say “inclined” because I am willing to grant that if I actually read the books, my own opinion might conceivably differ here and there from his.)

The review was by Neil Genzlinger, and it was published some six weeks ago, in the January 30 issue of The New York Times Book Review. Genzlinger reviewed four recently published memoirs, three of which he disliked strongly. I rarely use the clichéd expression “He took no prisoners,” but it really applied in this case. His beef was less with the particular memoirs under consideration than with the general direction that the entire literary genre of autobiography/memoir has undeniably taken in recent years: “There was a time when you had to earn the right to draft a memoir, by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you could turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment. Anyone who didn’t fit one of those categories was obliged to keep quiet. Unremarkable lives went unremarked on, the way God intended.”

You get the picture. It’s a pretty harsh review and, in fact, at one point Genzlinger apologizes for being so harsh. But there’s a method to his corrosiveness. He isn’t trying to discredit the whole idea of writing about one’s difficult childhood, or about a specific personal tragedy, or about a person in one’s family who lives or lived with a serious illness or disability. What bothers Genzlinger is that, in his view, many (not all, of course) published memoirs that revolve around these and similar subjects turn out to be trite, boring, mawkish, or worse. How is this possible? It’s possible—and this is my observation, not Genzlinger’s, although I can’t imagine he’d disagree—because memoirs are an enormously popular genre and publishers like to make profits, as do bookstores.

Sure, you could dismiss his criticism by saying that if you don’t like memoirs, don’t read ‘em. But the major trade publishers are going to publish a finite number of books in any given year, and for every not-terribly-distinctive or ostentatiously self-pitying memoir that does get published, it may mean that someone’s first-rate piece of work, memoir or not, is not getting published. (No, this isn’t a whiny personal plea on behalf of a “first-rate” manuscript that I keep stuffed in a filing cabinet.)

One of the authors under review, Heather Havrilesky—who couldn’t have been too pleased to read Genzlinger’s unsparing comments about her memoir, Disaster Preparedness—had the courage and grace to respond on the Times website by challenging readers to read a two-chapter excerpt from her book that’s linked to the online version of the review. “See if you agree,” she wrote, “that it’s dull or ‘unrewarding’” (the last term being Genzlinger’s). But she went on to say this: “Genzlinger’s critique certainly isn’t boring. Harsh or not, it’s entertaining (as more criticism should be) and a great conversation starter, so kudos to the author.”

Yes, kudos to the author. He’s hardly the first person to complain about the ridiculous proliferation of undistinguished, marginally interesting, patently nonessential memoirs, but he’s made his case eloquently and passionately, if a bit mercilessly. Kudos, too, to Heather Havrilesky for uncommon grace and civility under heavy reviewer-generated fire. Read Neil Genzlinger’s review here ( and see what you think.

Barry Hoberman

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