[This is a multi-part series.]
Recently, Christian Lorentzen, an editor at the London Review of Books, wrote a satirical piece on bibliomemoirs, wittily mocking the genesis of one in a fake-but-real conversation with a literary agent who says to him, “You seem to like reading a lot. Why don’t you write a bibliomemoir?” Which is, of course, a sly wink at those bibliomemoirists who consider their voracious reading appetites to be the most important qualification for writing a book about books.
The conversation goes on to raise and dismiss, on rather risible grounds, various literary works and authors as subjects. The agent prompts with questions like: Who was the first writer you really fell in love with? Is there a book that’s shaped the way you understand your life? Which writer gave you your ambitions? Who spoke to you in your youth but also taught you how to be mature? Which classic author do you see looking back at you when you stare into a mirror? And, all the while, the agent is also reminding Lorentzen of the need to focus on market potential with pithy reminders like: “think mainstream mass-market weird” or “tap into the nostalgia boom” and so on.
Eventually, there’s a random spark of inspiration and Lorentzen maps out, on a restaurant napkin, a clever chapter outline as book proposal for a potential bibliomemoir titled ‘My Friend Franz: Chronicle of a Life Not a Little Kafkaesque’.
Though playful, this seems to be quite a spot-on summary of the genesis of many bibliomemoirs. And the subtle-as-a-brick message is that, generally speaking, bibliomemoirists fall, too often, into the traps of navel-gazing narcissism and egotistical self-indulgence and, when they do look up to cast a glance outward, it is mostly to consider potential market appeal rather than literary value (not that these are entirely unrelated.) It is also a sobering reminder of how the publishing industry — agents, publishers, editors — approaches bibliomemoirs.
So, in this final part of the series, I want to focus on what we, as bibliophile readers, would like to see in bibliomemoirs about our favorite books and/or authors. If you’ve got to this home stretch in the series, then you are, likely, among those readers who loves literature and, possibly, also enjoys reading or is interested in exploring bibliomemoirs or other literary meta-narratives — whether literary criticism or biography or socio-cultural history or autobiography or other personal writings (published letters, journals, etc.).
As a reminder, in Part 1, I offered some thoughts on why people are attracted or driven to write bibliomemoirs, the challenges of doing so, the charges of egregiousness against the overall genre, and why we should give the best ones our consideration.
In Parts 2-5, there were micro-reviews of a sampling of popular bibliomemoirs from 1990-onwards. The focus was on books that were not just about reading habits, book fetishes, bookshelves, bookstores, book-collecting, and so on, but ones that blended literary criticism, biography/history, and autobiography skillfully.
The question we now turn to is regarding the literary value and relevance of bibliomemoirs as meta-narratives for the book(s) and/or author(s) that they are based on. Specifically: when is the bibliomemoir, as a hybrid genre, more worthwhile to readers than a related book that belongs to one of its component genres? In other words, when is, say, My Life in Middlemarch more worthwhile than a biography of George Eliot or a socio-cultural history of Victorian novelists or a book-length literary criticism of Middlemarch or simply an autobiography of a person who loves the book?
With “worthwhile”, in this context, I am referring to how a bibliomemoir might greatly enhance or add to a reader’s personal and subjectively unique experience of the original literary text(s) in ways that related books from the component genres, by themselves, cannot. It has to go beyond being simply an account of the bibliomemoirist’s “anthropology of reading“, as Tim Parks defined so well (stay tuned for an upcoming article or series on this topic too.)
In Part 1, I had briefly described four specific challenges that bibliomemoirists face: balancing and blending the component genres in their narratives to give us a sum that is greater than its parts; navigating the problematic aspects of the “memoir” element; competing with a loyal reader’s own unique and individualistic co-creation with the author when reading; and competing with real-time crowd-sourced, social, and unending bibliomemoirs all over the internet.
To counter those challenges and be considered “worthwhile” based on the above definition, I believe that a bibliomemoir needs to accomplish the following three objectives:
1) Validate the underlying thesis of why and how a book is important or life-changing in the context of the bibliomemoirist’s own life. This may sound like I’m stating the obvious, but the additional point I want to emphasize is that the life must be of some note — either by virtue of having accomplished or lived through something of historical or cultural significance. Otherwise, this aspect of the bibliomemoir will become, simply, an aesthetic exercise, which is somewhat antithetical to the very literary values that this overall hybrid genre encourages.
A good example is Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi. Her book covers several literary classics and how she read and taught them in Tehran during the Iran revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. We are drawn to it, foremost, because of her insider perspectives of those momentous times, more so than her reading and teaching of Lolita or The Great Gatsby — both being novels that make regular and frequent appearances in many other bibliomemoirs. Of course, she then gives us much more. It isn’t necessarily the best bibliomemoir out there in terms of prose style, but it has more intellectual substance and more heart than most, old-fashioned as all that may sound.
2) Provide new insights — even if they are only a handful — related to a book’s genesis, the author’s intentions (including what informed/shaped them) and its critical reception since publication. This may prove relatively easier if the bibliomemoir is about a single book or author. Still, in general, it is understandably difficult to go beyond channeling the existing messages and ideas of the author and/or scholars and provide new interpretations.
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose is one of my favorite examples that hits this mark. Prose gives us a few new ways of looking at the books and stories she references — an insider’s perspective, again, from an accomplished writer and teacher about the masterful techniques and tricks of other writers. The book manages to beyond being yet another handbook or manual for creative writing to give us glimpses into Prose’s life as a reader, writer, and teacher. And, by doing so, it shows us how the kind of close reading she recommends is not simply a matter of readerly skill or writerly craft but the very stuff of an intellectual life. It makes us more discerning literary gourmands for life.
3) Reposition — even if just slightly — the book(s) and/or author(s) in history, culture, and the overall literary canon. This is, likely, the most difficult objective. But, if objectives 1) and 2) are achieved, this one is more feasible.
Here’s a recent non-bibliomemoir example but it illustrates the point well. Take Wes Anderson and his latest wonderful movie, ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. Anderson has described, at length and in many interviews, how the stories and ideas of the long-forgotten Austro-Hungarian author, Stefan Zweig, have influenced him. So, already, this notable film-maker has, through his latest work and his making-of-the-movie interviews, repositioned Zweig in our present-day culture. Now, consider how it might be if Anderson were to write a bibliomemoir on Zweig and provide some new insights that haven’t already been covered by the many scholars who have written on Zweig. I daresay that Anderson could give us these new perspectives beyond what scholars have given us because he has interpreted Zweig in an entirely different medium.
Together, these may seem like a tall order indeed. Yet, are these expectations so different from the ones that discerning readers hold for any decent work of literature? To be fair, of all the bibliomemoirs surveyed in Parts 2-5, many have achieved at least one of these objectives rather comprehensively and compellingly, though, often, at the expense of another. The trick, as mentioned before, is to not attempt a thorough treatise for any single objective, but to create a smooth narrative synergy so that the sum is greater than the parts. Easy for me to say, I know.
In the end, all literary reading is about instigating or continuing self-conversations and self-exploration. I have always loved Zadie Smith’s analogy of reading as playing a piece of music in this excellent essay for writers and readers.
A novel is a two-way street, in which the labor required on either side is, in the end, equal. Reading, done properly, is every bit as tough as writing — I really believe that. As for those people who align reading with the essentially passive experience of watching television, they only wish to debase reading and readers. The more accurate analogy is that of the amateur musician placing her sheet music on the stand and preparing to play. She must use her own, hard-won, skills to play this piece of music. The greater the skill, the greater the gift she gives the composer and the composer gives her.
She was discussing novels and, in that particular passage, about the reader’s duty. But, if we take her music-playing analogy one step further, we could say that meta-narratives about books — bibliomemoirs, literary criticism, biographies, histories — are like the musical variations and interpretations that help us warm up and play the main piece of music (i.e. read the original text) better with each attempt. In the world of music, the variations on original themes are often lighter in intellectual substance. Yet, consider how, every now and then, we are blessed with a Goldberg or a Diabelli. Is it asking for too much, I wonder, to expect something similar, as readers, with this still-evolving genre of bibliomemoirs?
Through the writing and publishing of this series, I was able to connect with a couple of authors of the featured bibliomemoirs. And also with one who has a bibliomemoir-in-progress. Three particular questions came up in our conversations.
1) Of the four categories, is any one better than the other?
My response: No, not purely by virtue of the category attributes. The categorization was simply a way to organize the list of bibliomemoirs. In other words, all bibliomemoirs face the same charges of egregiousness and challenges that I described in Part 1.
What I’ve observed, however, is that the earlier bibliomemoirs were uneven because they tried to force more memoir and less literary analysis or history/biography. The focus, I suppose, was to “humanize” the bibliomemoirist so that readers could connect with them, rather than emphasizing a synergy between the different genre elements so that each provides something that another cannot. More recent bibliomemoirs appear to be trying to break out of those ridiculous injunctions.
2) Are there more women vs men writing bibliomemoirs?
My response: Not necessarily. When I started this series, I had intended to end with a statistical summary showing how many such books are being written by gender, year, category, nationality, canon, etc. Eventually, though, I decided against it because I thought it more important to focus on what we need from bibliomemoirs. In other words, I think it’s more important to have one Goldberg-like masterpiece than X quantity of books by women or people of color or whatever other classification is currently considered as vastly under-represented. This may not be a popular view. But, given that this is still an evolving genre, let’s focus on first things first. I am also conscious that, quite possibly, the potential masterpiece could come from those under-represented factions. So, perhaps, this is just tunnel vision on my part, for which I can only apologize and promise to alter my position as time and evidence allow.
I feel the need to mention that, as a woman and a person of color (that awful descriptor), how I am culturally represented is not something I brush aside easily. That said, cultural representation problems, at least in the literary world, cannot all be attributed to “the patriarchy”, and are a constantly tangled skein that we will leave alone for now.
3) Why are most bibliomemoirs focused on literary classics from the Western Canon?
My response: This, of course, is related to 2) above. And to several other issues such as the low interest in publishing, reading and teaching translated works from around the world. I am hopeful that new, upcoming bibliomemoirs like Ann Morgan’s Reading the World: Postcards From My Bookshelf, will pave the way to redressing this imbalance. And, thankfully, there are many efforts underway to bring more translated literary works to wider audiences. (I intend to do a separate series entirely on the matter of literary translations. Stay tuned.)