Tell-All Culture Wonders, What Are the Limits?

It may be one of the most basic needs of the human heart - the desire to tell one's story and have it heard.

It's a desire that has exploded across American culture at the end of the 20th century, giving rise to a chorus of voices in search of an audience. At its self-indulgent worst, the storytelling amounts to little more than spewing tales filled with sordid personal details on tell-all tabloid talk-shows.

But at its best, this need to make sense of one's life yields a reckoning that turns small moments of self-reflection into a more universal mirror of the soul. And nowhere is that more evident today than in the burgeoning field of memoirs, or "the literature of memory," as it's sometimes known.

To be sure, the titles that grab the most attention - and the biggest sales - are those that involve vivid tales of sexual abuse or private matters between public people. Paul Theroux's memoir of the breakdown of his friendship with V.S. Naipaul is certainly a case in point (see Page B7).

But even as the commercial spotlight fixes on such works, the boom in memoirs that began a few years ago continues to provide a wealth of stories written by often unknown authors who are grappling with individual meaning in a consumer culture swamped with data.

"We're faced with an overwhelming amount of manufactured identity" in society today, says poet Richard Louv, who has written a memoir called "Half the House." "There are all these things being beamed at us, telling us who we are.

"Memoirs are crawling out from under that, saying I really have to understand who I am, not who the culture is telling me I am," he says. "It's people claiming their power to talk back to the culture about who they are."

Novelist and essayist Charles Baxter adds, "Most memoirists take experience to be a matter of great seriousness. The kind of quick and easy dismissal of experience that is so often characteristic of commercial television can't infect" memoir writing.

"Our minds are so full of data now, thanks to the information glut, that personal experience has extreme value to everybody," says Mr. Baxter, who has just written an essay called "Shame and Forgetting in the Information Age." "Memoirs are part of the search for both meaning and the preservation of experience."

Not everyone is a fan of the growing genre. Many are inclined to agree with a New York Times Magazine writer who wrote of the memoir boom: "The license to tell all has produced a virtual library of dysfunctional revelation."

Critic James Bowman, who reviewed Theroux's memoir for the National Review, says that memoirs are all too often "like a literary Jerry Springer. When someone has a fit of pique or nastiness, we tune in, we buy the books." He wants memoirs from "men of action, people who've done things in the world."

Of course, the genre is moving quickly in the opposite direction - away from the reflections of great leaders and toward the insights of average people working through life's challenges. Paul Diehl, head of the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, calls the shift "the democratization of the memoir."

Diehl says everyone can point to memoirs that they feel exceed the bounds of good taste or offer more than they want to know about someone's personal life. A writer's craft, he says, is what saves a memoir from being a mere narcissistic endeavor.

"Difficulties have to be turned into self-discovery," he says. "Homer said, the gods have given us tears so that we can make songs out of them." Good memoirs, he says, turn an individual story "into a song that we can all share ourselves."

Tristine Rainer, author of "Your Life as Story," a book about writing autobiographies, says part of the appeal of a memoir is the fact that readers can sometimes find their own lives reflected in someone else's - and perhaps draw insights or strength from the lessons the writer has learned.

"We're trying to figure out how to live out our own lives in a tremendously complicated world with too many choices and no clear guidelines," she says. "The only thing we can go on is other people's actual, lived experiences. We don't want to be preached to, we don't want abstract ideas about what we should or shouldn't do. We want real-life experience."

Increasingly, she says, individuals are turning to memoir writing as a form of personal expression - with no intent of trying to get their work published. Dozens of memoir clubs have sprung up around the country, where individuals meet, not to discuss popular books, but to share their own writing about their lives.

"They're exploring the mystery of their lives and sharing those lives with each other," says Ms. Rainer, who is also director of the Center for Autobiographic Studies in Pasadena, Calif. Memoir writing, she says, "opens up the wonder of what a life is."

"Life has a structure," she says, "and each life is as different as each person's face. No psychologist can tell me the meaning of my life. It's to be found in the unique story of my life."

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