Saturday, January 05, 2013

Talking with Daniel Mendelsohn about the year in literary criticism

By  - Salon

Two critics discuss 2012's raging debates over sock puppets, Twitter cheerleaders and hatchet-job reviews

  • Talking with Daniel Mendelsohn about the year in literary criticism
(Credit: Knopf/Matt Mendelsohn)

“Waiting for the Barbarians,” Daniel Mendelsohn’s new collection of criticism (much of it originally published in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker), testifies to the author’s wide-ranging and omnivorous tastes. With his background as a classicist and his track record as a one-time weekly reviewer for New York magazine, he’s as authoritative (and as happy) writing about Herodotus and “Avatar,” pop culture’s fascination with the Titanic and Susan Sontag, Noël Coward and Jonathan Franzen. There could be no better partner for a conversation about the surprisingly tumultuous arguments about the state of book reviewing in 2012.
Our theme is the year in criticism, and there’s plenty to talk about, but first I have to express my astonishment over what we didn’t see this year: I can’t recall any memoir being exposed as partly or wholly fictional!
I know! It’s very disappointing. There was a while there when it seemed like every time you opened a newspaper there was a new one. There was the girl in L.A. who said she grew up in a gang when she really went to a prep school, and the lady who fled the Nazis and went running with the wolves. I’ve decided that the phony memoir is my favorite genre.

You write in the preface of your new collection that “the reality problem is the preeminent cultural event of our day,” and you’ve written memoir yourself, so that doesn’t really surprise me. But tell me what you like about phony memoirs.
All kidding aside, they’re interesting because the reaction to them when the shit hits the fan tells you a lot about our expectations of the genre. They’re revealing about us and what we want. What does it mean to be truthful in a memoir? Why do people attach so strongly to memoirs? When the memoir’s basis in truth is called into question, can they still get something out of it? The James Frey thing was a perfect example of that.

Because some people said that even if “A Million Little Pieces” was partly fabricated, they still found the book an inspirational account of addiction and recovery?
Right. But I say, fine: Then it’s a novel. What you want to get from a novel is different from what you want from a memoir. When you find out that some extraordinary story in a memoir is not true, it does alter your sense of the book in a very particular way.
People want real life to be amazing. We’re creatures of narrative. That’s how we make sense of the world. And stories are aesthetic, from the start. We want our experience to be a story, to have a beginning, a middle and an end. What we love in memoir is when life seems to conform to that aesthetic template. And therefore, the great disappointment when it turns out that the facts have been manipulated to be more like a literary narrative. The memoir’s traction is: Can you believe that someone’s actual experience is so much like a story?

Full article at Salon

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