In June, the New York Times published a list of “The Best 50 Memoirs of the Last 50 Years,” chosen by the paper’s three staff book critics, Dwight Garner, Parul Sehgal, and Jennifer Szalai (who were interviewed by John Williams for a companion piece, “Behind the Scenes of Choosing the Best Memoirs.”) The first twenty-five were in ranked order (Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments claimed the #1 spot), while the remaining twenty-five were listed in alphabetical order by author (concluding with David Wojnarowicz’s Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration).
Such lists are intended both to celebrate and to provoke, of course, and not least to prompt readers to list some of their own favorites. At the same time, both by intention and, perhaps, without conscious intent, the list suggests a collective outlook: what’s interesting, what isn’t; what’s particularly valued, what isn’t; and so on. I was struck, at the beginning of the “Behind the Scenes” conversation, by the critics’ expressing surprise over how readily they achieved consensus (“we agreed on a lot early on”). From the outside, this seems less surprising.
Some odds and ends about the list (which I hope you’ll read in full): It’s skewed toward more recent books. Of the fifty books chosen from the last fifty years, only thirteen were published before 1995 (but these include the top two: Gornick’s book and Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior). The list is obviously biased politically. “Come on,” you may be saying, “it’s the Times!” But I have a high regard for these three critics, even though we see the world from different angles in many respects. I would have expected to see William F. Buckley Jr.’s Cruising Speed here, for instance. The single most glaring omission is Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope. Along with its companion volume, Hope Abandoned, it is one of the best memoirs I’ve read in my lifetime.
And speaking of what I’ve read and haven’t read: Of the fifty titles on the list, I’ve actually read only ten. I’ve dipped into many of the others (Angela’s Ashes, for instance) before deciding they weren’t my cup of tea, but I haven’t so much as opened a fair number of them. That doesn’t prove a lot in itself, beyond the unremarkable fact that my reading tastes happen to differ from those of the panelists. Still, as I’ve suggested above, there are patterns of inclusion and exclusion that can’t be reduced to individual taste.
Particularly striking is the relatively short shrift given to memoirs grounded in religious faith. (A bit better represented are books in which religion, generally Christianity, figures as pathological, twisted, soul-destroying.) This seems odd, not least because, from its beginnings, the genre of autobiography and memoir has included so many compelling accounts of God-haunted, God-seeking, God-dazzled lives—books such as Susan Bergman’s Anonymity: The Secret Life of an American Family, Richard Rodriguez’s Brown, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club (which does appear on the Times list, at #4), Ralph McInerny’s I Alone Have Escaped to Tell You, N. D. Wilson’s Death by Living, Lauren F. Winner’s Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis, Andrew Klavan’s The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ, Amy Peterson’s Dangerous Territory: My Misguided Quest to Save the World, and Macy Halford’s My Utmost: A Devotional Memoir, to name only a handful of recent examples, all of them in the Christian tradition.
But again, such alternatives are exactly what “Best” lists are designed to elicit. I should add that, while I am glad to talk about the “best,” when I think of memoirs published in the last fifty years that have provided both instruction and delight, I’m not usually thinking in terms of ranking. The Way the Future Was, by the sci-fi writer and editor Frederik Pohl, has given me great joy over two or three readings. Wole Soyinka’s Aké, Thomas Bernhard’s memoirs published under the collective title Gathering Evidence, Anthony Burgess’s Little Wilson and Big God, P. D. James’s Time to Be in Earnest, Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, Muriel Spark’s Curriculum Vitae, Gerald Early’s Daughters: On Family and Fatherhood, Larry Woiwode’s What I Think I Did, Li-Young Lee’s The Winged Seed, and Wright Morris’s three brilliant books—Will’s Boy, Solo, and A Cloak of Light—gathered in a single volume, Writing My Life: all of them memoirs by writers, yes, and beautifully, idiosyncratically written, not to mention Anthony Powell’s four-volume series To Keep the Ball Rolling. I’d be much the poorer for not having read them, and they could make a start for a list of the best “literary memoirs” of the last fifty years.
It would be good to hear from you about memoirs published in the last fifty years that you’ve particularly relished or been floored by.
“Precisely because the memoir is potentially so rich,” I wrote in July 2001, “true lovers of the genre have been dismayed in recent years by the rise of the memoir industry—let’s call it ‘Memoir Inc.’—and its brazen flacks, the supreme example being James Atlas, who presided over a special issue of The New York Times Magazine (May 12, 1996) titled ‘True Confessions: The Age of the Literary Memoir.’”
Though it’s hard for me to believe, some of you reading this column are too young to remember the heyday of Memoir Inc.—now, blessedly, a thing of the past. Still, a lot of Bad Ideas about autobiography in general and religious autobiography in particular remain in circulation. Matthew Sitman addressed some of these in a 2015 piece for Commonweal, “Is Memoir a ‘Catholic’ Art Form?” (The scope of the essay is wider than the title suggests.) I especially like the conclusion of Sitman’s piece:
And so we reach out to each other, stumbling along, telling our stories. We long to be known and loved, to be understood and embraced. There are different words to describe this, but the Christian word for it is grace.
I wonder, when we talk about the religious element to memoirs, and the form's enduring appeal, how much we are talking about that: the hope that our lives, failures and all, are not beyond the reach of mercy.
Not at all contradicting this but rather complementing it is Anthony Powell’s comment on John Aubrey’s Lives, that Aubrey was the first to record in depth and for its own sake the strangeness of the individual human being. Aubrey’s work was biographical rather than autobiographical (though the boundary is sometimes blurry), but certainly part of the reason we read memoirs is to be reminded yet again how different we are from one another, even as we share our fundamental human identity.
John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.