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.

Francesa Rendle-Short book cover Bite your tongue

(Courtesy: Spinifex Press)

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.

38 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Scattered thoughts on memoirs

  1. I do enjoy a good memoir. I like the distinction you made at the beginning between autobiography and memoir. That distinction makes it easier to say I like memoirs that are about books/reading or about gardening/nature best. I do not much like “misery memoirs.”

    • Thanks Stefanie … I like your reasoning about the distinction! I would say I like memoirs about books/writers best too, but also ones about family, though many of these can be misery memoirs. I don’t have a problem with misery memoirs. They’re about life, and I tend to want to understand other people’s experiences. Angela’s ashes was a fantastic – and memorable – read. It has scenes I’ve never forgotten.

      • Oh yes, Angela’s Ashes was stellar, but it seems for a while there a good many memories were trying to outdo each other for who had to worst childhood or overcame the most horrific medical trauma or addiction. For me, there has to be a point other than “look at the horrors I survived!”

        • Yes, Stefanie, I hoped that was your point! Not that all misery memoirs are not good to read but that they became overdone and not always by people with the ability to write or tell a good story.

  2. I don’t have a lot of experience with memoirs so could be way off here but I tend to think of them as being more episodic than autobiographies. Fragments of a life as it were

    • Interesting Karen. They can often be an episode from someone’s life – e.g. one’s childhood and youth like Simone de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a dutiful daughter. Or about an aspect, such as you find in sporting memoirs. “Episodic” sounds a bit disjointed to me whereas a good memoir is whole within itself (as much as any story can be whole!), but I can see that’s a way of looking at them.

  3. I prefer character driven stories to plot driven ones. Hence I love reading memoirs. I usually have a memoir or auto/biography on my reading list for the month. I loved Tiger’s Eye by Inga Clendinnen and A Fortunate Life by A B Facey. At the moment, I am reading H for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald. It is a memoir about grief and nature.

    • Yes, that’s it Meg – character-driven stories explains it beautifully and why I like them too. H is for Hawk. Was! I fingered and fingered and fingered that book on a table in a bookshop the other day. I’m sure I’d enjoy it but I decided I had to think of the TBR pile and restrain myself. I might still crack though!

  4. I had expected my publishers would enter my book for relevant prizes, because they said they would. Unhappily, they didn’t. End of whinge.

    • Life is just unfair sometimes, M-R isn’t it, so whinge away. I wonder why they promised and then didn’t. Strange. Does it cost to enter? I know it does for some, but I wouldn’t have thought it would have for some of those I mentioned.

      • (1) They told me they didn’t want me doing any of my own publicity, and (2) they didn’t want me entering any competitions for myself. As you know, I very amateurishly did what I could for the former, and didn’t know in time about the latter. Honestly: do you wonder why my heart is so full of rage, Sue ? But I shall not whinge more on this, I PROMISE FAITHFULLY. Let alone to you, to whom I turn for all things good.

  5. I love that definition! It makes it so simple. People have asked me in the past what is the difference and I have been hard pushed to find an answer. I think memoir is the more interesting genre in this sense – it doesn’t have to capture everything that has happened to a person but can focus on the most interesting parts – or even just one interesting part. I’m glad I inspired you to thinking and writing about memoir – otherwise I might never have come across this handy definition!

    • Haha, I’m glad to be of service Annabel, and glad you were of service to me!! I’ve been using that sort of definition for a while now because it has been an issue that’s intrigued me since memoirs started gaining ground. Wikipedia puts it really clearly, though, so was nice to be able to refer to. I agree with you re preference – the author can focus in and develop a real core about themselves.

  6. I enjoy memoirs but I find it hard to pinpoint why I’ve liked the ones I’ve liked. They have no particular recurring theme – ‘just’ engaging writing and an interesting exploration of whatever it is they are exploring. I avoid misery memoirs that are deliberately marketed as such, but wouldn’t avoid an interesting exploration of grief, for instance. Of which H is for Hawk is a stellar example. Go on, succumb to temptation. Buy it – or at least borrow it. You know you want to… I could get my copy from Victoria to Waniassa in two weeks time (via a visiting colleague) if you wanted to borrow that.

    • Intersting point Michelle. I discovered the same. I actually thought I read a particular type of memoir but when I looked at the ones I’ve reviewed over the last few years they range widely in subject matter. It’s the writing, as you say, and the thoughtfulness with which they explore and reflect on the subject matter.

      Thanks re H is for Hawke. That’s a really kind offer – and, in fact, Wanniassa is just over the hill from me, but I’ll seriously consider buying it because I like to write in my books. I find it hard to read without a pencil in hand.

  7. Here in the UK I chanced upon Margaret Rose Stringer’s And Then Like My Dreams via her blog and since reading it I have been handing out copies, like smarties, to my friends – who have all loved it. M-R’s voice; her humour, honesty, originality and her shining love drive this story along in the most compelling way. H is for Hawk is on my bedside.

  8. Yes, I do like reading memoirs and yesterday at a Book Exchange at our U3A I picked up In My Skin by Kate Holden [ my initial skimming is not positive] and Inga Clendinnen’s Tiger Eye which will be my bedside book for a while. Sally Morgan and Frank McCourt I read soon after they came out. when I have more time I’ll look through your post and the comments to find other memoirs to put on my list of books to read.

    • Thanks Carrie. I’ve read In my skin – before blogging – and found it interesting. I often think of it in fact because it showed me that people can only succeed rehab when they REALLY want to. It’s no good other people sending them to rehab – they have to want a different life for themselves. The book was worth it to me for helping me understand the drug addiction trajectory. As for the Clendinnen, that’s a great book and one I’d happily read again. When/if you come back looking for more, I’d love to know what you think about these two.

  9. I picked up A Fortunate Life by A B Facey in a Sydney Salvation Army shop yesterday, very attracted too but then I replaced it on the shelf thinking I didn’t have the time to read to the end before returning to the UK at the end of April. Was that a mistake I wonder? I have a bag full of others though.
    Other memoirs from this fascinating list are now on my kindle or ordered from Amazon UK secondhand. Many not heard of before, much anticipated.

    • Thanks Carol … I’m thrilled that the post inspired you to acquire some from your Kindle. Would love it if you came back and told me what you thought after you read them.

      A fortunate life is supposed to be a fantastic read – it came out while I was on an overseas posting and to my embarrassment I’ve never gone back and read it so I can’t say whether it’s a mistake or not!

  10. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading your scattered thoughts on memoirs and the comments that followed. The Wikipedia definition is certainly a nice short definition. My definitions are somewhat longer. Autobiography – is a chronological all-of-life narrative which is verifiably factually correct and usually not written in a creative narrative style ie there is usually no or little dialogue and description of scene. Memoir on the other hand is defined as a form of non-fiction writing, that is a truthful autobiographical narrative of the author’s memories and reflections of the events or a particular theme or activity that cover a period of time in the author’s life.
    I am doing research on memoir and have consequently had to read many although my research is concerned with memoirists who write sequel memoirs. I have concluded that the reader’s own experiences and likes/dislikes has a lot to do with whether they will enjoy one memoir over another. Angela’s Ashes I found very difficult to get through. The writing may have been good but it wasn’t sufficient to get me through the miserable story. His next “Tis” I found even worse but his third “teacher man” I quite enjoyed. It was the story that held me. For me, if the protaganist “I” acts in a way that I cannot relate to/believe then I find the story loses me very quickly. For me voice matters, literary writing does not matter as much as the story as long as the writing has a strong voice and is well edited.
    Rendle-Short’s memoir/fiction is a great piece of writing where she writes with three voices – that of Glory the fictional child, the narrator who is on her way to see her dying mother and a third voice that adds the facts that neither Glory nor her real-life counterpart Rendle-Short could have known at the time. This is a book that stays with you for a long time.
    I could talk memoir all day but feel I have taken enough of your space. Thank you for a thought provoking post. Cheers Irene

    • Thanks Irene. Your extended definition is pretty much as I see it – the Wikipedia definition is a useful shorthand for that idea. At least it is to my mind.

      Voice matters a lot to me too which is exactly why I liked Angela’s ashes. To some degree I see voice as being tied up with literary writing in that a dull voice is usually accompanied by dull writing. But, I’m planning to talk a little more about the issue of literary writing in memoirs in my next post (if I can get my thoughts together!)

      Oh, I wonder if you though that my comment that it’s all very well to have a story to tell but there’s more to it than that? I certainly didn’t intend to downplay the story. I simply meant that the story needs to be told well – and for me that means voice and, as I said above, that usually also means good (usually “literary”) writing.

      I’m not much of a series reader of anything really, so didn’t read McCourt’s second or third books despite loving the first. I have read, though, ALL of Maya Angelou’s memoirs (or, were they autobiographies in the end?), and Jill Ker Conway’s two.

      • Memoirs can be great and it does seem a bit strange that they do not perhaps get the recognition as complex literary works they deserve. Rousseau’s Confessions or a book like Edmund Gosse’s Father And Son show that memoirs as complex and resonant as any fiction is not a new thing.

        • Yes, you’re right Ian … it’s more I think that they have risen their head again in the last couple of decades. I don’t recollect seeing contemporary memoirs studied seriously in, say, the 1970s BUT I am seeing it now?

      • I’ll look forward to that post. I have a feeling we probably diverge on what is literary (as I don’t think voice is what makes something literary for me) so it will be interesting to see what your thoughts are. I love it when thoughts are provoked and discussion generated from these posts. I understand what you mean by getting your thoughts together as I often find that it is these kinds of discussions where you are really forced to think and verbalise those thoughts that you actually come to realise what you truly believe.
        I agree totally that the story needs to be told well. I probably did think that you meant that story was not important. Voice is definitely important but for me it doesn’t necessarily equate with literary – so I’ll wait for your post with interest.
        Sequels are an interesting area (to me at any rate). What did you think of Ker-Conway’s True North? I haven’t read all of Angelou’s – I think she was probably the most prolific memoir writer of all time.
        Cheers Irene

        • Thanks Irene … glad we clarified that. Sometimes I think I assume people can read my mind!!

          For me, it’s not so much that voice *makes* something literary but that these two things often go hand in hand. I think a literary work will usually have an interesting voice, and if it has an interesting voice chances are that it will have literary qualities. I’m not sure I’m going to specifically address this in my post but I am going to talk a little about literary qualities.

          Haha re Angelou. She certainly was prolific. I read them all at a time that I had more time – and had less pressures on my reading choices – than I do now.

          To be honest, I remember little about True North. I think I found it interesting. The road from Coorain outraged me, however. It’s well-written as I recollect, and a moving story, but her lack of generosity (as it seemed to me) is what I most remember.

  11. Pingback: Annotated Bib: “Creative Transcendence: Memoir Writing For Transformation And Empowerment.” | Write on the World

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