>It’s a Good Memoir, but Is It Art?

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Today I read a terrific article by Richard Gilbert on his blog, “Narrative”:

“The Leverage of Persona in Memoir.”

He talks about memoirs by Jeanette Walls, Harry Crews and Annie Dillard. I’ll confess that I’ve not read Crews, but I was very interested in his take on Walls and Dillard–especially Walls, whose memoir about her dysfunctional childhood, The Glass Castle, became a best-seller. (I met Walls and did a post about her in January of 2011.)

Gilbert quoted some from a review Francine Prose did of The Glass Castle for the New York Times Book Review in 2005. I appreciated many of Prose’s points, but I can’t wrap my mind around this comment:

The Glass Castle falls short of being art, but it’s a very good memoir.”

I’m still not sure what she means by “a very good memoir” that isn’t art. Read the review and Gilbert’s blog post yourself if you’re interested, and follow the discussion in the comments. (Forgive my typo in the comment I left… I’m always embarrassed when I do that on a writer’s blog!) The main question I am still pondering is this (which I asked in my comment): are memoirs categorized as “commercial” and “literary” the way novels are? And if so, can a “commercial memoir” be a “really good memoir” and yet not be art? Does Prose mean that something must be literary to be art? Or does she mean, as she discusses in her review, that the memoir must do more than tell a good narrative…. that it must relay the soul of the protagonist and how the story/circumstances affected that person’s life?

I’m thinking about these issues as I come near the end of the novel I’m writing. I am trying to write literary fiction, and I certainly hope my main characters’ voices come through strong. But above all, I hope I am creating art.

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