My copy of The Autobiographer’s Handbook arrived today. Edited by the illimitable Jennifer Traig, with an introduction by Dave Eggers, it’s a how-to manual for the art of writing memoir. With a Jewish religious memoir canon that still reeks of newness, the entries are already piling up. Traig has two amazing memoirs of her own…and this is probably where I should name-drop my own book Yom Kippur a Go-Go, which…yeah. The title kind of says it all.
Yes, I know there have been Jewish memoirs…well, ever since the Book of Prophets. And the idea of finding meaning in your life, and writing it down, is certainly nothing new. But I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that quality memoirs are going through a renaissance right now, and the People of the Book — who also happen to be the People of Let’s Talk About Me — are staking their territory.
Toby Young, a memoirist himself, disputes the idea of memoir as artifice in the Wall Street Journal — “A memoirist may be driven by less than honorable motives, such as the desire to settle scores, become famous or get on the best-seller list,” he writes. “I’ve written two memoirs and those three goals were certainly uppermost in my mind.” But Dave Eggers preemptively disarms that argument in his introduction:
When a manuscript detailing life during the Holocaust was first discovered and submitted to publishers, its interest to the general public was doubted. “Very dull,” a reader at Knopf sniffed. “A dreary record of typical family bickering, petty annoyances and adolescent emotions…Even if the work had come to light five years ago, when the subject was timely, I don’t see that there would have been a chance for it.” This book was Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl. No one, not this editor, not Anne Frank herself, thought that it would become the best-known narrative of the six million souls lost in the Holocaust.
Yeah, that’s right, buster. You just slammed Anne Frank.