Reviewed by Allison Darcy
Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir by Helena de Bres (University of Chicago Press 2021) is nothing if not intellectually comprehensive. Lovers of knowledge may find themselves drawn in by the in-depth discussion of a wide range of subjects: metaphysics, aesthetics, sociology, feminism, and self-healing are just some of the topics the book engages. De Bres is a professor of philosophy, and make no mistake, the “philosophy of” in the title is taken seriously throughout, with references to Descartes, Locke, and Nietzsche, to name a few. And while the book is organized by those five main questions, it is full of the kind of cascading and continuing questions inherent to the author’s field: What does it mean to call something real? Does the world even exist in an objective sense?
Many of these emerge in the second chapter, “Is All Memoir Really Fiction?” Well-written and thorough, de Bres delves into questions the reader may never have considered. However, while the book’s description refers to it as “clear and conversational,” this chapter in particular left me feeling as if I was not intelligent enough to take part. An upper-level undergraduate or graduate seminar in philosophy or literature might really enjoy this on their syllabi; for laypeople, even writers, it may cover too much too quickly and with too much jargon. Still, de Bres is wise to infuse it with small moments of levity—she is at her best when she is making the nature of reality clear through unpacking whether or not she can make a Manhattan tonight.
The latter three sections, on the other hand, examine questions I’ve discussed with other writers many times: how do we write about negative experiences with others without harming them? To what extent do we owe those we mention the ability to approve of our work? Is altering small details for the sake of streamlining acceptable? Here, de Bres’ comprehensive explorations are made more clearly relevant. Readers can expect Artful Truths to discuss not just what a memoirist should ask themselves about privacy, but what privacy is, why it matters, what it does for human relationships, and what spiritual implications it may have. I could see a thoughtful writers’ group having hours of good discussion on even a subsection of these chapters at a time.
But at moments, de Bres goes beyond answering—or rather, teasing out—these questions. Occasional prescriptive statements specifying what memoirists should do or what they ought to be come as a surprise and can come off somewhat condescending in tone. These statements don’t always offer the justification that would seem to fit the thorough argumentation present in the rest of the book. And while urging memoirists (and writers in general) to consider the broader implications of their craft is both respectable and needed, I found myself wondering if the author in fact enjoys contemporary memoir at all: in a bibliography of over 250 items, only about a dozen are full-length memoirs from the last decade—and when they are mentioned, it is not always positive. This is not to say that criticism and examples of ethical controversies are unwarranted here but calling out another writer’s work by name as not of “superior literary quality” early on (then admitting it is on her bookshelf—but only because someone gave it to her) seems in poor form.
Still, Artful Truths: The Philosophy of Memoir is quite the feat of intellectual exploration. Members of academia would do well to consider including certain sections in their courses, and enthusiasts of both philosophy and literary theory could find new ideas within. For the writers the book appears to be speaking to, it may leave a sour taste.