One of the world’s unfair divisions is that between the writer and the written-about, and this is nowhere more true than in the literary form called the memoir. Memoirs are very rarely ‘about’ the person who writes them; among the striking exceptions might be J. R. Ackerley and Diana Athill. Self-depiction is a difficult art if the result is to be both honest and interesting, and more than a list of achievement. To succeed, memoirs usually latch on to the easier and more fruitful business of describing people other than the self, with the memoirist as a witness rather than an actor. In V. S. Pritchett’s A Cab at the Door it’s Pritchett’s father we remember—the rackety, philandering Christian Scientist—rather than young Pritchett himself. The same could be said of Blake Morrison’s And When Did You Last See Your Father? and many other good modern memoirs. Memoirists need lively human subjects outside themselves, and, to be frank, it helps if the subject is dead. The fact of their death often prompts the original impulse to write—to memorialize and to share and illuminate the intimate with a wider audience whose lives are filled with similar intimacies, a good reason to write a book. But it’s also true that the dead are handy because you can’t offend them and they won’t answer back. Silent in their graves, they encourage freedom among the writing classes six feet above.
This is what I mean by ‘unfair division’. They have no right of reply. There they are stuck with the only public version of themselves, to be remembered eventually only because of a book (which may be better—or not—than being forgotten by everyone). Once a colleague at Granta suggested a good issue might be called ‘Dead Parents Hit Back’, but of course the difficulty of commissioning the pieces made it impossible to organize. And even if it had been possible—if the dead had been awoken by the fees and energies of the literary agent Andrew Wylie—I think most would have been reluctant to dish the dirt on their writer progeny. Parenthood doesn’t bring out the candid best in a writer, which may be connected to the parental ideal of unconditional love for one’s children. Is there a good memoir of a child by a parent? Perhaps so, but I haven’t read it. Victorians sometimes mourned the premature death of their children in non-fiction. In the present age only fiction (for example, Lionel Shriver’s We Need to Talk about Kevin) seems able to explore any feeling other than pride and love. This may speak well of us as parents, but it confines memoir to one-way traffic.
‘With autobiography there’s always another text, a countertext, if you will, to the one presented,’ writes Philip Roth’s alter ego Zuckerman in The Facts, adding, ‘It’s probably the most manipulative of all literary forms.’ The Facts is an overlooked book by Roth (in Britain it’s hard to find), but it contains priceless wisdom for both the memoir-writer and -reader; ‘life-writing’ classes should teach it. The book is divided into three parts. In the first part, Roth tells his fictional creation Zuckerman that he is going to take a break from fictionalizing his life and instead write ‘the facts’. In the second part, he describes his early life, his women, his troubles, and his first literary success. In the third part, Zuckerman (Roth, of course) takes ‘the facts’ apart and advises him against publication.
‘What you choose to tell in fiction,’ writes Zuckerman, ‘is different to what you’re permitted to tell when nothing’s being fictionalized, and in this book you are not permitted to tell what it is you tell best: kind, discreet, careful—changing people’s names because you’re worried about hurting their feelings—no, this isn’t you at your most interesting… You try to pass off here as frankness what looks to me like the dance of the seven veils—what’s on the page is like a code for something missing.’ And later: ‘Even if it’s only one per cent that you’ve edited out, that’s the one per cent that counts—the one per cent that’s saved for your imagination and that changes everything.’
This issue of Granta being called ‘Loved Ones’, it naturally contains several pieces of memoir. I think they’re as honest—sometimes uncomfortably so—as any personal non-fiction can be. But one should always remember Roth’s ‘countertexts’, of which the world is so invisibly full.
A striking difference between British and American literary fiction, at least among its younger writers, is the number of people who need to be thanked. Victorian writers rarely thanked anyone at all in the pages of their books. Who does George Eliot thank for Middlemarch? Nobody. An older generation still with us—Roth, for example—will make do with a brief and mysterious dedication: ‘To H.J.’ For some time now, others have more explicitly mentioned their husbands, or more usually wives, sometimes referring to their ‘patience’ and ‘understanding’ and implying how essential both were when the suicidal writer came down from his study and said it was all over and all rubbish, he would never write another word. In the new century among new writers, such brevity would be considered miserly ingratitude. As a judge of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists I’ve been reading a lot of fiction, short-story collections as well as novels, by writers under thirty-five years old. I can’t say what I think of the books themselves—the judging isn’t over—but I can say that never before have I read such long acknowledgements in works of fiction.
In the book in front of me now they run to four pages. To get to the end of them is like standing impatiently through the final credits in a cinema until the words ‘second-grip’ and ‘Westrex’ appear on the screen. On the first page, the writer thanks and lists ‘the good folks’ and ‘esteemed fellow workshoppers and friends’ of his second creative writing school. On the second page, he does the same for his first writing school, plus a few other teachers he’s met along the way (one of whom he stuck to ‘barnaclelike’). By the third page we’ve got on to his previous employer and fellow former employees, his agent, his editor, someone called Stacy at Caribou Coffee, and, well, just a bunch of wonderful friends. The fourth page is given over to his mother, his sister, his late wife, his present partner: ‘four extraordinary women, all of whom I love without measure’. The only item missing is a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation.
These pages appear at the end of seven short stories, some of which I liked very much. The question is: did all this thanksgiving make me think less of the writer (and therefore, unfairly, less of the stories), and if so why? Certainly, it shouldn’t do. To acknowledge the idea that writers and writing need all kinds of sustenance and encouragement, from loving sisters to Stacy with her large lattes down at the Caribou, is gracious behaviour. To thank one’s fellow workshoppers and tutors shows that writing can be a very cooperative process, which may be a truer way of looking at it than the caricature of the lonely, struggling genius, as well as a rare and welcome thing in a society obsessed with individual competition. But these generous instincts can also be read less generously. Stories aren’t obviously cooperative ventures like plays or films, but perhaps this book really has been produced in a kind of factory, a ‘workshop’ filled with the sound of relentless verbal carpentry, of sentence-honing and character-shaping, until the hooter sounds and everyone finds an agent or goes home. Perhaps it was one of the dozens of the thanked, ‘Donna’ or ‘Kelly’, who produced the phrase ‘complicated terrain of the yard’ on page thirty-two. Maybe ‘Joshua’ added the word ‘and’ to that wonky dialogue on forty-six. There’s no reason a good book can’t be produced that way, but do we need to know it? It only serves to remind us of the underlying effort, the pain given for our pleasure. Above all, why should the writer imagine we care about any of them? Might it be (and this is the most ungenerous thought of all) that he is mighty pleased with himself—that he thinks his work is so brilliant that its worth needs some explanation?
So far, writers in Britain (and elsewhere) are less given to lengthy acknowledgements, but that may be changing with the steadily increasing number of writing schools at British universities. The book may be at its heart still a solitary act of creation, but the process of learning to write one has become socialized—you might even say industrialized—to the point where Donna, Kelly, Joshua, etc. have indeed earned their mention as the second-grip.
The judges of Granta’s Best of Young American Novelists campaign hold their final meeting in New York in October. They are, myself apart: Edmund White and A. M. Homes, novelists and memoirists; Paul Yamazaki of the City Lights bookshop in San Francisco; Meghan O’Rourke, poet and literary editor of Slate; and Sigrid Rausing, Granta’s publisher. As in the first Best of Young Americans in 1996, our task is to choose twenty writers (from around 150 submitted) who in our view have achieved most or who promise most. New work from the twenty will comprise a special edition of Granta to be published next spring.
As it happens, I hope my fellow judges will like the short stories of the anonymous writer above as much as I do, and that they’ll ignore the extra-literary question of the acknowledgements.