What I didn't like about "Julie and Julia"

A friend tipped me off to this rather scathing characterization of memoirists in a “Time” magazine review of the based-on-the-book movie “Julie and Julia”:

There are memoirists like [Julia] Child who write about what made them famous, or infamous. There are unremarkable people who write about a remarkable thing that happened to them. And there is the 21st century memoirist, who makes him- or herself interesting in order to write about it, usually through a time-centric gimmick, like spending a few months at, say, an ashram.

The quote hit a nerve. I often write in the first person, using myself as a character and my experience as plot in service of larger themes.

Yet, the reviewer seemed to be putting most first-person writing into the category of memoir—a category not much esteemed by anyone except those pesky book buyers, who keep putting true-life stories on the best seller list, “Julie and Julia” included.

My sense is that the underlying complaint is that those who write in the first person a) lack journalistic rigor; b) are self-indulgent.

I have some evidence to the contrary. For instance, during two long train trips this past week I read Matthew Green’s “The Wizard of the Nile,” a first-person account of a journalist’s quest to find an African warlord; and Chang-Rae Lee’s “Aloft,” a first-person novel about the travails of a retired landscaper in Long Island.

In the first, the narrator served as a literal tour guide. By describing racing through the airport, piling into a van, and sitting for days in the sun in the bush, Green introduces the reader to the geography, people, and history of Eastern Africa. The story is not about him, but he makes a personable and intelligent companion.

More importantly, the fact that the information is filtered through a human and specific lens makes it more accessible. The reader learns along with Green, and as a result I am both engaged in what I’m reading and trust the author’s conclusions. The bibliography at the end only confirms what I’ve already intuited: the book is well-researched, as well as well-reported.

In the second example, “Aloft,” the character of Jerry Battle muses for a few hundred pages on his wife’s suicide, his daughter’s terminal illness, his son’s failed business, and his father’s escape from the nursing home. As a work of fiction it’s fantastic, so why would it be considered anything less in nonfiction, an example of “an unremarkable person” who had some “remarkable things” happen to him?

My guess is that the difference turns on the word “unremarkable.” By considering them in close and loving detail, fiction often exalts the lowly. To turn that fond gaze on oneself, especially without the clamoring of fans, risks seeming self-aggrandizing. But, as a reader I will confess that I’m in it for the voyeurism. I want to look at people’s lives close up, and I believe that everyone is both remarkable and has a remarkable story, if it is told thoughtfully and well.

Which is a pretty big if.

And herein lies my own somewhat ungenerous characterization of nonfiction first-person writing. If the craft is good, then the most plain lives can sparkle: “This Boy’s Life”; “An American Childhood”; all of David Sedaris.

If the information is compelling, then a first-person narrator can bring it to life: “Slouching Toward Bethlehem”; “Three Cups of Tea”; “Homage to Catalonia.”

If the experience can teach us something, then the gimmick is worthy: “Nickel and Dimed”; “Paper Lion”; “Supersize Me.”

The trouble comes when the form seems contrived, the character unappealing, or the writing uninspiring—which, I confess, was my reaction to the book “Julie and Julia.” But these are criticisms that would stand for any work of literature. First-person writing doesn’t warrant any special criteria or disdain simply because it uses the self as a vehicle for narration or reflection. Especially in this era of blogs, self-publishing, and true-life best sellers, the more we can hold all writing to an expectation of excellence the better rewarded we the audience is likely to be.

Kelly Nuxoll is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

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