Mary Karr: the buzz about "Lit: A Memoir"

"Lit: A Memoir" by Mary Karr seems to be the darling of the book critics this week. And now, on top of a stack of reviews that positively glow, there's an interview with Karr on Huffington Post today. Most interesting question: "Do you think quality writing can be taught?"

Karr's answer: "[Y]es, I think it can be taught. I think mine is a very modest talent. I work very hard and I've read a lot of books and I've taken a lot of advice from better writers than I am, and the bar for me is very high, in my mind, and I don't think I've done what I'd like to do as a writer yet. This book is as good as I can write it. I'd like to write a better book. Next year."

Next year might be an ambitious goal for Karr. ("Lit" came in about four years past deadline.) And writing a better book might be hard as well. Here's a sampling of what the press had to say about "Lit":

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times: "[Karr] has written a book that lassos you, hogties your emotions and won't let you go."

Melanie Gideon in the San Francisco Chronicle: "Mary Karr owes me. Because of 'Lit,' her new memoir, my week was a disaster. Laundry piled up, the dishes went unwashed, my son went without his flu shot, and our puppy peed on the couch - all because I spent every spare moment with my nose buried in 'Lit,' a harrowing account of Karr's descent into alcoholism and her eventual conversion to Catholicism."

Carmela Ciuraru in the Christian Science Monitor: "This is a truly harrowing story, but so poetically written that unlike many memoirs, the material seems riveting rather than repugnant. And not once does the author paint herself as the heroine of her own life. (There isn't a single false note in 'Lit.')"

Rebecca Steinitz in the Boston Globe: "In recent years, the narrative misdeeds of faux memoirists like James Frey and JT LeRoy have given the genre a beating. But Karr is the real thing. Her focus on the details of experience sometimes sets facts aside, but never forgets them."

Samantha Dunn in the Los Angeles Times: "Karr could tell you what's on her grocery list, and its humor would make you bust a gut, its unexpected insights would make you think and her pitch-perfect command of our American vernacular might even take your breath away."

And all this for the work of a woman (Karr is also the author of "The Liar's Club") who insists that hers is "a very modest talent." If what she has to say about honing that talent through hard work and advice is true, then creative writing students everywhere can take heart.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor. You can follow her on Twitter at

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