I’ve never entered a confessional booth—not a literal one, anyway. I have, however, confessed without a booth’s anonymity. It takes courage: The inner life is private; why reveal it to the world? Is there anything more vulnerable than divulging one’s emotions? Are there greater insights into the human psyche than someone confessing without asking for absolution? I think “no.”
Therefore, I’m dismayed when critics and academics attack creative nonfiction as an illegitimate pursuit, as opposed to other genres. In fiction and poetry, critics analyze a particular book and deem it good or bad. With creative nonfiction, some consider the enterprise itself unworthy, thereby demeaning the entire genre.
This attack on memoir and personal essay has now reached a new low. Rather than being maligned from the outside, we’re facing repudiation from within. A subset of creative nonfiction writers are undermining those who confess secrets. According to these dissenters, when too many first-person pronouns populate the page, writers not only confess a sin but commit one. Just the titles of several articles on this subject by creative nonfiction writers say it all: “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over” (New Yorker, 5/18/2017); “Confessing and Confiding: Knowing the Difference between the Two Can Elevate an Essay from Therapy to Art” (The American Scholar); and “The Examined Life May Be More Worth Living. Writing About it is Another Matter” (New York Times, 2/1/19).
Let’s first consider the origin of creative nonfiction’s disparagement. Critics launched this attack in the mid-1990s when the memoir boom emerged because women—and others silenced for too long—began publishing their narratives. The late James Wolcott labeled memoirists “navel gazers,” claiming the genre is “a big earnest blob of me-first sensibility” (Vanity Fair, Oct. 1997). Later, Anthony Brandt, former essay editor for the Pushcart Prize anthology, claimed that “the genre encourages…self-indulgence, if not outright narcissism. What’s easier…than writing about yourself?” He states that feminist essays rarely have any “literary value” (Poets & Writers, Nov.-Dec. 2007).
The attacks haven’t ceased. Now writers of creative nonfiction, including women, are eating their own. For example, the fine memoirist (but misguided critic) Alexandra Fuller eviscerates—rather than critiques—memoirs by Reema Zaman, Sophia Shalmiyev, and Pam Houston. In the above-mentioned review in the Times, Fuller writes, “At their worst, there’s little to distinguish poorly conceived memoirs from the kind of thing better suited for a mental health professional.”
Granted, Fuller hints at the existence of good memoirs; however, she only cites one, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelou. One example. Really? Memoirs like Angelou’s “burn through the ‘me’ of the genre,” Fuller claims, “and into the universal of the human experience.” Agreed, but the power of artistic personal writing is precisely that the “I” is universal. We contain, manifest, and reflect upon the universal because of individual human experiences, not in spite of them.
Some reviewers claim a work of nonfiction can only be considered “literary” if heavily researched, if the “I” is held hostage to footnotes. But why is researched material considered truer, more trustworthy, than knowledge possessed by the heart? Too many critics take the easy pose of cynicism. Don’t explore the heart too deeply, they suggest. Don’t confess too much.
For example, Emily Fox Gordon, in the aforementioned American Scholar, claims it’s acceptable to confide, but not confess. But if I’m confiding, I’m merely telling my best friend a secret; I’m being circumspect. If I’m confessing, however, I’m disclosing a secret truth in public. When personal essayists confess, they do so artistically and bravely. Their redemption—for themselves and, hopefully, others—is in their openness, their vulnerability.
The real problem isn’t terminology. Rather, too many critics seem unable to distinguish between worthy memoirs and unworthy ones, so they dump everything onto the same doomed heap. Or maybe they’re afraid to know emotional truths about issues such as domestic violence; addiction; discrimination of the LGBTQ community; struggles by people of color; women telling #MeToo stories; the reality of living with pain or disability, and more. Through their dismissal of emotional truths, they push writers toward self-censorship, toward silence.
Of course, there are bad memoirs and essays. There are also great ones. Successful memoirists possess a double-vision—an ability to see the past twined with the present, the interior world enfolded in the exterior world. Unlike real life, memoir is both microscopic and telescopic. The smallest detail can be contextualized in such a way that it embodies the universal. Metaphors in real life are hidden; memoir reveals them. By discovering them, a story about one person speaks to others.
Don’t get me wrong: I love narratives that weave research into the personal. I admire writers such as Adam Hochschild and Susan Orlean. But good research doesn’t necessarily supersede or invalidate individual experience. Emotionally authentic stories resonate. Confessional writing is not “let me tell you what happened to me,” which is confiding. Rather, it’s an exploration of the story behind the story: “let me tell you why this happened to me.”
Confession is a search for larger meaning. It’s researching the heart in a ruthless, reflective examination of self within the context of a larger sphere. The self only seeks to understand its place in a greater realm: familial, political, or cultural, among many others.
My own creative nonfiction reading list, posted on my website, is eighteen pages. Consider Mark Doty’s Heaven’s Coast in which the story of his partner dying of AIDS illuminates the universal experience of mortality and loss. Read Kelly Sundberg’s Goodbye, Sweet Girl to emotionally understand the plague of domestic violence. Read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy: An American Memoir to gain insight into growing up a Black man in white America. Readers identify with these writers because their work is crafted, honest, and speaks to shared human experience.
Memoirists and personal essayists confess their obsessions. As a writer I’ve been obsessed by Pat Boone, sexual addiction, Adam Lambert, Jeffrey Dahmer, fear of death, hypochondria, Galveston, and Route 17 in New Jersey, to name just a few. A diverse group, I know! Yet in my various books all of these give rise, hopefully, to such universal themes as loss, desire, alienation, identity. Obsessions evolve from a fundamental need to speak. Metaphoric language explores the intricacies, ambivalences, and beauty of our souls.
If we write unflinchingly from pain it will touch someone else’s pain. If we write honestly from loss it will touch someone else’s loss. While confession might be good for the writer’s soul, its purpose is to speak to the soul of the reader.
Despite this blowback, memoirs continue to be written and read. My hope for literary reductionists is to embrace the inclusivity of art. One art form does not negate another. Personal narratives survive over the centuries because of their emotional authenticity, because in the end this is all we have: our sharing of stories. The writer Cheryl Wilder reminded me of what Gaston Bachelard, in The Poetics of Space, calls “intimate immensity,” how “immensity is within ourselves.” We access it by looking within and writing about what we find there. Every toe-dip into that intimately immense sea makes a ripple. And that toe didn’t research how to create its wave.