Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Saturday, April 18, 2009

the future of memoir

In one of my classes we've been reading and discussing three autobiographical stories — three versions of memoir, you might say: Augustine's Confessions, Richard Rodriguez's Hunger of Memory, and Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis. The other day I remarked to the class that all three of these authors are, in their varying ways, displaced persons — displaced from homeland, or upbringing, or culture, or language, or some combination thereof — and that displacement is one of the major prompts for memoir and other forms of self-narration. The person taken out of the environment in which he or she was formed is almost forced to reconsider the self and its components, is almost forced into redefinition. And one of the classic ways to achieve a successful redefinition is by telling one’s own story, in large part because through telling it one discovers what it is.

Given the mobility of American culture (I went on to say), and the resulting vast numbers of displaced persons, can anyone be surprised that memoir has become the dominant literary genre of our time?

But here’s what I’m wondering: does Facebook make self-narration less compelling, less necessary? In a much talked-about essay, Peggy Orenstein has speculated that Facebook denies to young people “an opportunity for insight, for growth through loneliness”; it makes it harder for them “to establish distance from their former selves, to clear space for introspection and transformation.” Maybe it also eases — or hides from us — our displacements, and creates a false sense of seamlessness in lives that have actually undergone significant ruptures.

Or perhaps it does what it promises to do: offer a real sense of seamlessness, allow us to shift our lives in innumerable ways without ever leaving anyone or anything vital behind. We’ll see.


  • I think it differs greatly based on age. At 43, facebook puts me more in the mood of memoir because I am reconnecting with friends from the past. Younger folk on facebook seem to be in an eternal present of updates, etc. So, perhaps you're right that memoir will become unnecessary. But the reflective voice that I value in creative non-fiction is unlikely to show up in a status report, or, for that matter in a 140 character tweet.


  • Tony Comstock said...

    And all this time I thought I started blogging to try and help sell my films...

  • I wonder if Facebook won't actually be helpful in writing memoirs; if I'm still using it in ten years and wanted to write about my years in college, I could look back at loads of comments and photos from college.

    I will say that Twitter has somewhat curbed my desire to write autobiographical essays, which I was very given to a few years back. I think this is because whenever I Tweet, I'm forming some sort of narrative on my life. And I have an audience, too.

  • I got on Facebook in attempt to help heal a sense of displacement after transferring from one school to another. Though it did put me back in touch with some dear friends, it did not heal the feeling displacement--perhaps because the community it facilitates does not talk about off-line life very well. I'm wondering if Twitter, with its lack of features, would be better for that.

  • Just today I was speculating on the ways in which the internet in general and Facebook particularly might radically change the whole class reunion phenomenon. Facebook potentially provides a sort of perpetual state of reunion or union, in which former classmates and people from one's past have a much greater presence as "friends" than they might otherwise have had in earlier times. In the past they would have receded from consciousness and you might have become curious about them over time. Facebook may well squash that curiosity born of detachment in some cases. Just my speculation, though, and I can't say I would shed many tears for the diminishment of class reunion culture.

  • As for the class reunion, I can already say that Facebook has effectively killed it. My wife's five year was two years ago; we went, and it was an utter disaster. All the small talk had been filled in by Facebook, so what was left was a bunch of drunken 23 year-olds in a Philadelphia bar.

    We left early.

    My own five year would have been last year, but trying to please the entire class regarding a location and time (all done through a Facebook group!) destroyed it, not that I had been planning to attend.

    Now, five year reunions were a bit too early even in the pre-Facebook age, so these are perhaps very poor anecdotes. But it will be my cohort that first gets to sort out these issues, as Facebook really first got critical mass in '06.

    The thing is that most high school acquaintances are of the sort that you only really want the "just the facts, ma'am" about. You are curious about a few things: 1) what are they doing for a living? 2) are they married? 3) do they have any kids?

    These are questions to which Facebook gives us easy answers. It does not facilitate deeper communication, but the high school reunion seems to have never been about that, anyhow.

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