This week’s New York Times Book Review has a compelling essay by Benjamin “Indecision” Kunkel about the current state of literary autobiography. Called “Misery Loves a Memoir,” it examines the tendency among many writers nowadays to look back on episodes of substance and/or personal abuse with the weary knowingness of self-congratulatory survivors — instead of using their experiences to help formulate some plan to live differently.
“This accent of futurity is missing among contemporary memoirists. They sigh over their past woes; sigh with relief now that they’re better; or sigh the long sighs of nostalgia. It’s not, of course, that the memoir of recovered sanity or tribulation endured can’t be a very good one: witness Emily Fox Gordon’s Mockingbird Years or Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. Likewise, nostalgia can be an eloquent mood: think of James Salter’s Burning the Days or Anatole Broyard’s Kafka Was the Rage. But where is the contemporary writer reporting honestly, ambitiously and without therapeutic cant or smug self-help recipes on his or her effort to live a proud and decent life? Contemporary memoirists have taught us mostly how to survive. They haven’t begun to teach us how to live.”