Memoirville

Let’s Not Mince Words: Bill Clegg & Darin Strauss On Memoirs and Media

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

By Bill Clegg and Darin Strauss

“I suppose there is an old fashioned side to me that believes that if the book is good it will find its way—sometimes swiftly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly, but that people will find it, eventually.”

Bill Clegg and Darin Strauss are two authors who continue to find each other in conversation about their memoirs, Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man and Half a Life, respectively. Clegg writes about his addiction to crack and how, through his binges, he lost his job, his savings, and many relationships, including his boyfriend (Clegg’s Six-Word Memoir: “Years of using, now of use”); Strauss’ memoir is an account of a car accident that resulted in the death of one of his high school classmates–an accident that, while not Strauss’ fault, turned his life upside-down. (His Six-Word Memoir: “Faced down demons. Now, what next?”)

This summer, Clegg and Strauss spoke to Newsweek about writing their books and the various responses they received from friends and family. Strauss’ memoir was since released in September. Here, they pick up their conversation to talk about reviews, critics, social network book hustling, and whether or not Faulkner would have tweeted his readership for ideas.

Bill Clegg: It’s been a few months since we last talked about writing memoirs. Back then you were in the run-up stage of publication while mine was just ending. Have your thoughts changed?

Darin Strauss: My book has only been out eleven days, but my thoughts have changed a little. I was afraid of the reaction I’d get–and still might get: people angry. And at least so far, I’ve been pleased with how it’s been the opposite. In the last few days I got an e-mail from a woman whose daughter was killed by a young driver, and another by a woman whose father was killed in the same way. And these people–who would have every reason not to like the book, or by extension me (at least it feels that way, don’t you agree?)–wrote to thank me. The book helped them. That’s a powerful thing. Also: the variety of people who read memoirs is different, wider than those who read literary fiction.

Clegg: I understand. The response that is not the public one swiftly, for me, became the one that mattered the most. Agents and editors and publicists and friends reel from review to review, profile to profile and gauge the dwindling or rising worth of the thing in the world. But privately, while that is going on, e-mails and Facebook messages from people all over start coming in and the ruckus of the outer world muffles as the sounds of this other, more intimate, reader-to-author exchange begins to sound.

One thing you’ll see is that it doesn’t die down (unlike the reviews and the publicity); I still get e-mails and Facebook messages and letters every day. There have been times, like this past Friday night: I came home sick from a trip to LA to find a negative review by Darryl Pinckney in The New York Review of Books. Pinckney leans heavily on big generalizations about the genre and the people who write them and draws some nasty and inaccurate conclusions about how I blame my parents and ex-boyfriend for my addiction. So I read this review and fumed at all the errors.

And then I checked my e-mail. Two e-mails came in from people I’ve never met who had read the book–one a recovering addict and another from someone who has had addicts in her life. They were long, involved, frank letters and once I finished them the steam on my reaction to Darryl Pinckney’s lazy rant had released. I remember giving you advice about this months ago–meaning, if it ever got sticky and you felt criticized or under attack, to remember why you wrote the book in the first place, and to whom it was directed. It’s advice that was given to me almost a year ago now and the letters from the people who I wrote the book for remind me of that same advice again and again.

Strauss: I can relate. I was very excited to open my New York Magazine last week and find myself in their “Approval Matrix”–they usually pick one or two books to stick among movies and albums and TV shows–a list of what important is going on in the culture at a given moment. So far so good. I was in their “Brilliant” section (above Kanye!) but somehow pretty far in “lowbrow” territory (because it’s a memoir?). And worst of all, they wrote: “Darin Strauss’s riveting, sad, and borderline exploitative memoir about accidentally killing a classmate.” That’s a glib way of describing what happened–the classmate swerved into my car of her own volition–and why did they have to say “borderline exploitative?” I think people can’t just run fully positive critiques in the Snark Age. But you’re right–going back to first principles helps. Are you surprised that reviews are still coming in? And have your thoughts changed, with (a little) hindsight?

Clegg: I can’t say that my thoughts have changed all that much or that I have been genuinely surprised by anything. As an agent, I’ve been close to many publications so I’ve seen the critical community respond (or ignore) books I know well and the truth is that there is no empirical truth about literature. It’s subjective and personal. But there are standards for reviewing and what’s depressing is to see them plummet into what you describe as snark.

I sometimes can’t believe who gets assigned reviews in some of the most important places. There’s a fair bit of laziness and nepotism involved, but it’s so shameful when writers put everything they have into their work and then it’s handed to someone genuinely not qualified to review it responsibly and seriously. Or worse, someone who has an agenda. When it’s your own book it’s clear who has read the book carefully and who hasn’t. There are a few criticisms–someone accused me of sentimentalizing my oldest friend in the book and it’s something I worried about in the writing. That particular writer clocked me on a few other things and while maybe I didn’t agree with everything, I trusted that he’d read the thing carefully and was approaching the review seriously and responsibly. Sometimes I felt like I was being reviewed more than the book and perhaps on some level because it’s a memoir I shouldn’t be surprised. And then there were the instances when I felt like articles or reviews were written based on the prior coverage.

Pinckney says that I admit in the book that my looks allowed me to bullshit through lots of situations which isn’t true. For one, I never say a word about my looks (which if I had would have been negative) other than a twisted moment when I turn myself on looking in the mirror. At this point in the book it’s clear that very little didn’t turn me on when I was on drugs so that’s hardly a description of how I understood the way I looked being integral to my ability to bullshit through situations. But its best not to complain about reviews and coverage–it’s a miracle when anyone writes anything about a book these days, so one should be grateful the book is being written about at all, by anyone, even someone choking on their own snark.

Strauss: That’s kind of you to say, but there’s been the occasional assholic blogger, and I’m sure some mean review is lurking, waiting behind some journalistic corner. The standards have plummeted. I think it’s weird that novelists review each other’s work. There’s so often a conflict of interest. They don’t have directors reviewing their competitors’ movies. Martin Amis has a line about this: writing is the only art in which the creator is publicly judged by people who do precisely the same thing, but as a rule less well. But at least they used to read the book. You and I talked about a prominent review of your book where it was clear the reviewer had read at most ten pages. Lunacy. But here we are.

And you’re right that it’s tiresome to read complaints about reviews–like bitching about a book tour, just about the worst thing you can do. And yet.

The alternative, of course, is the Internet. Where anyone can say anything, and where even reviewers who read just ten pages can seem responsible. I once got into a fight with a whole blog community who were dissing me for my author photo–admitting they haven’t read the book! Still, there are signs of this encroaching into “serious” places, too. A Washington newspaper runs a piece called “books I haven’t read,” where the writer said, “I don’t know if Darin Strauss was drunk, but he clearly was at Laura Bush-grade fault for the accident.” (I was judged not guilty of any wrongdoing.) When I wrote him to clarify, he responded, “Don’t write a letter trying to make me feel bad.” And even our talk for Newsweek–great as it was–had the headline: “Good Writers Behaving Badly.” Now, I know I’m too sensitive, but I wasn’t behaving badly: a girl cut in front of my car, I tried my best to miss her, but failed–as I almost certainly and physiologically couldn’t have helped but doing. And now, in mentioning this, I look ungrateful.

Clegg: Jesus, is this thing going to run unedited? [Editor’s note: more or less, yes]. I hope so. And not. Either way, it’s a relief to talk about this frankly with someone (albeit publicly) going through it since I tend not to talk about any of it much to anyone. Okay, that’s a lie: I called my best friend and whined about the Pinckney review and he made me laugh (at Pinckney’s expense, of course). Are you going on tour?

Strauss: I am going on tour, and blogging about it for Powells.com, just because I felt I wasn’t writing about myself for public consumption enough. (Is this mic still on…?)

I just did a reading in Long Island, where I’m from; it’s also the locus of my book. It was wild–old elementary school teachers, kindergarten friends. Plus, teachers of the girl who died. (I worried there might be a sic semper tyrannis moment.)

Clegg: Reading in your hometown, where the accident and early aftermath happened, is brave. I admire you for going back. Blogging on tour: what do you write about? Do you even try to create an intimacy with whomever is reading it? Or do you just say, “Seattle was awesome” or “The people in Baltimore are the best–thanks guys.”

I see Facebook pages of authors with messages like—”I’m writing a novel about bread. What breads do people like?” Or, “Who has a special spelt flour memory?” I see these things and I’m embarrassed for everyone involved. And then all the “Watch me on Conan” and “Come to my reading at…” and I think on the one hand people are taking matters into their own hands and hustling up audiences to sell books, and on the other I think, would Virginia Woolf have done this? Faulkner? Maybe they would have to, I don’t know. But the direct-to-the-masses hustle on behalf of a book takes away a little of the magic for me as a reader/book buyer. I don’t want John Berger tweeting me about his next NPR appearance. But then there are so few reviews and so little coverage for books and I think, good for you, bang your drum, sell your goddamn book.

Strauss: It doesn’t feel like something Bellow or Joyce would do. I did an event with another writer, some musicians, and comedians. And it was totally great. I was glad to be a part of it—the crowd was bigger, and the show was more fun than any reading I remember. On one hand, the idea of writers with comedians and pop musicians seemed wrong (”Tonight! John Updike and Soupy Sales, with the Archies!”). But when you realize that all these things—literary writing, popular music, comedy, whatever—are competing for the same small chunk of every busy citizen’s Internet-addled life, it actually felt like a privilege. I mean, the musicians and comics were drawing more of a crowd than I was. So the world we live in has writers asking twitter followers for baking ideas for a kitchen scene. You could say that’s a comedown. Or, a nice link, a bit of intimacy that writer and reader never had before.

Clegg: Let’s end were we began on the relationship between author and reader. I see the value in an intimacy created from other communication beyond the book itself, and I certainly understand the desire for it as a reader (after all, I stood at the end of Salinger’s driveway as a teenager hoping he’d come out and say hi). But I guess my sense is that so much of that communication instigated by the author possibly challenges or corrodes the more important relationship that can develop between the text and the reader.

With little data to get in the way, the imagination takes over and the clues in the writing become the seeds for something that is utterly personal and perhaps more lasting. I also think so much of this outreach from authors comes from a (real, understandable) terror that the book won’t make it, that it won’t be seen or paid attention to in its hour of debut. I spend a huge part of my job engaged in avoiding this by writing notes to other writers, TV show producers, and magazine editors so they pay attention to the books I represent. The publicist and the editor do this, too–it’s our job.

I suppose there is an old fashioned side to me that believes that if the book is good it will find its way—sometimes swiftly, sometimes excruciatingly slowly, but that people will find it, eventually. Great writing has an energy to it and it’s an energy that doesn’t disappear, it instigates reactions—sometimes one at a time, sometimes many all at once. But at a certain point one has to trust the book, and once the people involved have done their jobs to get the word out, that the book will ultimately be its own best advocate. It won’t need thousands of followers on Twitter knowing what the author had for breakfast to find its way. I suppose it’s a bit naive for me to think like this but I’ve also seen how books I represent, with little to no initial reviews, have ended up becoming great successes. Zachary Mason’s The Lost Books of the Odyssey and Salvatore Scibona’s The End are good examples of this, both of which were brought to the public’s attention by prizes: The NY Public Library Young Lion’s Award and The National Book Award respectively. They made their way on their merit.

Strauss: I hope you’re right. But I’ve seen writers I love—V.S. Pritchett comes to mind, an absolute master—whose reputation and readership taper off for no reason. Salvatore Scibona’s work is great. And it was wonderful that the National Book Award brought him greater acclaim. But if he hadn’t been nominated? I mean, we all know what a crapshoot awards are.

To be a working writer is to try for something extraordinary. And it takes an extraordinary amount of work. And unfortunately, part of that work now involves so-called social network sites—actually, I take it back. It’s not unfortunate. All it is is different. I’ve heard from readers in very gratifying ways through Facebook: people sharing stories of hi-def intimacy. That link—that mutual excitement—wouldn’t have been possible before. And look what a writer like Colson Whitehead does with Twitter. He’s funny and engaging and shows a side of himself not always evidence in his fiction. Only connect, right? And now we connect all over the place.

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BUY <a href=”http://www.amazon.com/Portrait-Addict-Young-Man-Memoir/dp/0316054674/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1286212459&sr=8-1″>Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man and Half a Life.

VISIT Darin Strauss’ website.

READ Clegg and Strauss’ conversation in Newsweek.

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2 responses

  1. ctgoods2 says:

    Excellent two-fold interview. I really enjoyed this, especially the format. Intend to get my hands on both books.

  2. Editorial Philosophy Analysis « Elucidating SMITH Magazine says:

    [...] stories discuss people’s experiences. Others may be a back-and-forth dialogue, such as the discussion between Bill Clegg and Darin Strauss about the recent publication of their [...]

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