three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
45-Mar-Apr-2010
By: 
Ben Yagoda
user_rating: 
0

A History

A-MemoirBen Yagoda has written widely on language and writing. His books include The Sound on the Page, The Art of Fact, About Town: The New Yorker and the World It Made, and If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It.

The Topic: In the current era of six and seven figure advances for a salacious, tragic, or witty story, those of us with no story on which to capitalize have only our parents to blame for an uneventful childhood. But as Ben Yagoda points out in Memoir: A History, don’t think the tell-all is just now finding an audience. Beginning with St. Augustine’s Confessions, Yagoda works his way through the history of memoir up to the latest causes célèbres, including an analysis of the flap over James Frey’s not-quite-true A Million Little Pieces. Such dust-ups are nothing new, as Yagoda cites "a scandal a year" since 1960. They are only more visible because of the insatiable need for such stories brought on by "more narcissism overall, less concern for privacy, a strong interest in victimhood, and a therapeutic culture"—all factors that have lifted the genre to new heights—or depths, depending.
Riverhead. 304 pp. $25.95. ISBN: 139781594488863.

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"Yagoda displays an insider’s knowledge of the publishing industry as he concentrates on the rapid commodification of the genre, tracing it back to America’s celebrity obsession of 1930s. … [The author] has given us a groundbreaking and relevant book." Tim Redman

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Despite the necessary skepticism Yagoda brings to his subject, it’s clear that he comes to the memoir with deep respect. … Yagoda’s incisive exploration is a worthy study of a genre that even now cannot completely be defined." Eryn Loeb

Boston Globe 3.5 of 5 Stars
"A delightful book full of scholarship yet free of the hideous jargon and leaden prose that readers have learned to dread in such works. If I have a bone to pick with Yagoda, it’s that his view of memoir veracity may be a little too nuanced." Daniel Akst

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"[Yagoda’s] new book will appeal to history fans curious about memoir more than to memoir fans curious about history. Still, it offers many more facts and curiosities like the ones cited here, and, in that sense, Memoir: A History accomplishes what it set out to do." Craig Fehrman

Washington Post 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Yagoda … touches just about all the bases, some more lightly than others, but I can think of no significant omissions beyond his failure to give [fiction writer Frederick] Exley anything more than a footnoted nod. He offers a nimble and nuanced discussion of the nettlesome issue of truth and fiction in autobiography and memoir." Jonathan Yardley

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"The best part of this all-too-restrained history, the last two pages, is where Yagoda drops his historian’s mask and companionably shares his thoughts. Truth is the least of memoir, he suggests, though truth can’t be dispensed with." Judith Shulevitz

Wall Street Journal 3 of 5 Stars
"After Memoir turns to the modern era, we start feeling a certain lack of artistic or intellectual nourishment. Apart from a few pages devoted to Holocaust memoirs or narratives of black experience, the book turns into a history of the popular memoir—of the development of the memoir industry." John Gross

Critical Summary

With the spate of bad behavior in the press these days and the promise of a handful of books dedicated exclusively to the Tiger Woods affair, Ben Yagoda couldn’t have chosen a better time to publish an examination of memoir. Rather than a portrayal of the less savory aspects of human interaction, Yagoda argues that the genre is a reflection of a society at a point in time and a snapshot of a period’s history. If Memoir: A History has a weakness, it might be the occasional sacrifice of depth for breadth. Still, as a survey of memoir—its history and also some of its more titillating moments—Yagoda’s book achieves a rare sleight of hand, providing both entertainment and a splash of scholarship.