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What Kind of Truth in Memoir?

Nan Barnes

The big news in literary circles this week is the appearance of a memoir, Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man by literary agent Bill Clegg.

A tease for New York Magazine, in which an excerpt appeared on line, offered this summary: “A rising publishing industry star trashes his life during a bender in this intense but callow confessional. Clegg, a literary agent with William Morris Endeavor, tells the story of a two-month crack binge in which he smoked away his literary agency partnership, his $70,000 bank account, 40 pounds (he’s forever cutting new holes in his belt to cinch it to his wasting frame), and his relationship with his devoted long-suffering boyfriend.”

Wow! We have often written here about the importance of truth telling in memoirs, but it sometimes seems that some of these truths could be left untold or at least don’t need to be told yet again.

I couldn’t help agreeing with the Book Fraud Blog which observes: The excerpt left me less-than-interested, not because it was poorly written, that I lacked sympathy for the writer, or even because I never wondered what a literary agent goes through when he trades his life for some crack (though I always felt my former one had done something similar). The problem is that I feel like I already know what it's like to be a crack addict — because it's been written a million times over already.

Word on the street is that Clegg got a $350,000 advance.

I guess it’s just another instance of what novelist and college professor David Shields called our “very nearly pornographic obsession” with “misery lit.”

The success of trash like this is enough to get you down. It did me until I ran across a piece by Susan Yanos in the Friends Journal Blog. I’d like to share a passage with you. Yanos wrote:

Annie Dillard once quipped that if you want to keep your memories, don't write a memoir. Writing, in the imposition of structure and point of view and imagery, often reveals, perhaps even creates, a meaning in those past events we did not see during the living of them. The written account becomes our memory.

Writing, therefore, has the power to change the past—not the actual events, of course, but how those events continue to influence us. Writing has tremendous power, most certainly. But when we play with that power, will we cast a light into the darkness surrounding us, or diffuse the light into an impenetrable fog where we lose our way?

That’s a kind of truth in memoir that trash like Portrait of the Addict as a Young Man will never even consider.