Monday musings on Australian literature: Scattered thoughts on memoirs
I’ve titled this Monday Musings “scattered thoughts” because I don’t want to raise expectations that I’m going to write a treatise on what is a fascinating but oh-so complex topic. I was inspired to write this post by author Annabel Smith’s asking me to take part in her Friday Faves* post on favourite memoirs. For this post, Smith asked six writers/bloggers to nominate their favourite memoir. Three of us chose Australian memoirs. Do check the link I’ve provided if you’re interested – I certainly enjoyed reading my co-invitees’ selections.
According to my stats, I have read and reviewed 24 autobiographies or memoirs over the history of this blog. I don’t want to get into discussions about autobiography vs memoir now, except to say that Wikipedia’s definition is pretty much how I see it:
An autobiography tells the story of a life, while a memoir tells a story from a life.
By this definition, a memoir will tend to focus on an aspect of a person’s life, often an event or activity that defines who they are or why they are the way they are! Over half of the 24 books I’ve reviewed are memoirs, and a little over half of them are by Australian writers.
The main point I want to make here is that while memoirs reach far back into time, as the Wikipedia article describes, they started gaining popularity – and, with it, visible literary status – in the last couple of decades. Early standouts for me were an Australian one, Sally Morgan’s My place, and an Irish-American one, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s ashes. Who hasn’t read these! Both are moving stories, and both are written by people who can write! It’s all very well to have a story to tell, but there’s more to it than that …
So much more, in fact, that memoirs have become the subject of academic and critical discussion. Where, for example, is the boundary between memoir and autobiographical fiction? Why would an author pass off as memoir a work that was fiction – such as James Frey’s A million little pieces. Despite controversies like this, however, memoirs have cachet and are appearing on literary prize shortlists.
Take, for example, the Kibble Literary Awards (the Nita B Kibble Literary Award for an established Australian female writer, and the Dobbie Literary Award for a first published work by a female writer). These awards are for “life-writing” and can be won by “novels, autobiographies, biographies, literature and any writing with a strong personal element”. In recent years, memoirs have been among the winners, such as Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir (2014), Kate Richards’ Madness: A memoir (2014), Lily Chan’s Toyo: A memoir (2013), and Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger eye (2001).
These awards, though, are for life writing so it’s not surprising that memoirs feature. Memoirs, however, also appear in non-fiction awards. Kate Richards, for example, won the non-fiction prize in the Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature in 2014 for Madness: A memoir. Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir won the Douglas Stewart Prize for Non-fiction in the 2014 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, and Malcolm Fraser with Margaret Simons won the same award in 2011 for Malcolm Fraser: The political memoirs.
And then there’s the Stella Prize, established in 2012 for “writing by Australian women in all genres”. So far, a memoir hasn’t won, but they have been short and long-listed. The 2012 longlist included Patti Miller’s The mind of a thief; the 2013 longlist had Gabrielle Carey’s Moving Among Strangers: Randolph Stow and my family and Kristina Olsson’s Boy lost: A family memoir. Kristina Olsson also made it to the shortlist. This year, Biff Ward’s In my mother’s house which, coincidentally, will be my next review, was longlisted, though it didn’t make the shortlist.
Don’t worry, I’m not going to keep listing awards won by memoirs, because I think I’ve made my point that memoirs are worthy of serious consideration. Certainly, I enjoy a good memoir – and I like thinking about what makes a memoir. I’ve read several Australian memoirs last year which did not feature in awards but which had strong voices that engaged me, such as Margaret Rose Stringer’s And then like my dreams (my review) and Olivera Simić’s Surviving peace (my review).
I’m intrigued by novels which are closely autobiographical, like, say, Kate Jennings’ Snake (my review). It’s a novel, but Jennings used excerpts from it in Trouble (my review), which she called her “fragmented autobiography”. Barbara Hanrahan’s The scent of eucalyptus (my review) is also highly autobiographical.
Then there are the books that more explicitly span the memoir-fiction divide. Kate Holden’s The romantic: Italian nights and days (my review) is, she says, memoir. She started it as a novel, feeling memoirs are “narcissistic”, but realised it was her “life” so she turned back to memoir – and wrote it in third person! And this brings me to the book I nominated for Annabel Smith’s post, Francesca Rundle-Short’s Bite your tongue (my review). Described as a fiction-cum-memoir, it too is told third person – in the main, because a few first person chapters are interspersed in the book. Rendle-Short chose third person because the story was too hard to tell so she had to come at it “obliquely”, while Holden chose third person to maintain “critical distance” from her former self.
Oh dear, I think this has been a bit of a ramble … but it’s a topic I love thinking about. Thanks Annabel for inspiring me to post on it today!
Now I’d love to know whether you, reading this, are memoir readers, and if you are, what makes a good one for you.
* Friday Faves is a series on Smith’s blogs in which she asks one or more writers and/or bloggers to write about a favourite book, often on a specific topic. I reviewed her novel/ebook/app The ark last year.