IN THIS POST: Reading two memoirs concurrently prompted me to ask, “What makes a good memoir?” Using these two memoirs, I attempt to create a list of 5 qualities that create a good memoir. Do you agree?
I recently found myself reading two memoirs at the same time. This isn’t a genre that I actively seek out, but I enjoy reading a few each year. These two memoirs were different in tone, content, and intention. One I liked, one I did not. The contrast was so striking that I started to wonder, “What makes a good memoir?”
Let me introduce the two books that started my thinking.
Memoirs to Compare and Contrast
The Rules Do Not Apply by Ariel Levy spans about twenty turbulent years of her life. She pulls in anecdotes and reflections from her childhood, but the main content is from her 20’s-40’s. Levy is good with storytelling and spins her story in a readable and entertaining way. There are a couple points of high drama – sometimes of her own accord and sometimes as a function of life. This is a book for my book club. I didn’t particularly love this memoir, but I think it will generate good conversation in a group setting.
Shelf Life: Chronicles of a Cairo Bookseller by Nadia Wassef charts her experience starting and maintaining a bookstore in Cairo, Egypt with her sister and a friend. Each chapter is titled from a book section in her store and serves as an over-arching guide for the content and reflections in the chapter. Wassef manages to include commentary on social, cultural, historical, and political elements in Egypt; reflections from her personal life; and, book recommendations and critiques. This is not a “hold-onto-the-edge-of-your-seat” kind of book. I read a bit, set it aside, and then came back to it. In this case, it worked. The story and her writing create a compelling read.
Common Points of Quality
I read these memoirs concurrently, but I finished The Rules Do Not Apply first. I think this is why the distinctions stood out so clearly. However, the question is what makes a good memoir, and not what makes one memoir better than another. I think there were aspects of both books that would be included in a list about what makes a good memoir.
Both Shelf Life and The Rules Do Not Apply were well-written. They were constructed and written clearly.
Both memoirs cover situations or topics that are uncommon from a personal perspective. Memoir is different from autobiography in that it is meant to cover a concentrated period of a person’s life rather than a full account from life to almost-death.
Differences that Matter
It is in the differences, though, that the criteria for a good memoir come out. Three distinctions, in particular, came to mind.
One, a good memoir should have a changed character by the end. There should be a sense of growth and development. Shelf Life and The Rules Do Not Apply both include situations in which the authors are stretched, but in and through Shelf Life there is a sense of reflection and adaptation and growth by the author. Though Levy experienced dramatic events in her two decades, neither her general outlook or approach to life appeared to change from the beginning to the end of the narrative.
Two, a good memoir should have a clearly-defined purpose. To be fair, narratives that are organized around a theme or life-event tend to have a more obvious connection. Shelf Life is clear from the title that a reader can expect to hear about what it’s like to be a bookseller in Egypt, particularly a female bookseller. I was less clear about the point of Levy’s memoir.
Since The Rules Do Not Apply was not a direct comparison in this case, I tried to think of other “life-based” memoirs and considered John Perkins’ memoir Let Justice Roll Down. Levy’s and Perkins’ memoirs could not be more different in content or tone. However, they both attempt to be a memoir about a period of the author’s life. I think what helps Perkins is that he is writing from the perspective of justice as he has and has not experienced it. There was a thread that ran through it. I struggled to find that in Levy’s book.
Depth Through Meaning: Why Should I Read This?
Three, a good memoir provides more than entertainment. I think this may be the most controversial of the suggestions I’ve made and certainly lends itself to criticism as being the most subjective. Nevertheless, I think this point is important to include.
This is very closely tied to the transformation arc in the first point. Memoir should not just be a recounting of a specific time in someone’s life. It should provoke, inspire, challenge, comfort, or otherwise make a meaningful connection with readers.
I struggled with this in Levy’s book, particularly as the ending neared. It felt as though nothing had really changed. That’s not to say that Levy’s experiences as she shares them do not have value or that they did not have a profound effect on her life. It is to suggest that my being able to read about them may not have been the next best step. In other words, a good memoir should answer the question “Why should I read this” with more than just “Because”. The Rules Do Not Apply lacked a depth, despite some of the very sobering struggles, to give it meaning as a memoir.
In contrast, though the story did not contain any overly dramatic situations and my only connection to it was a love of books, Shelf Life brought up compelling questions about history, a woman’s role and responsibility, what should our relationship be with government, and others. In some cases, Wassef tried to answer the questions. At other times, she let them simmer. As a reader, there was something there for me to connect with in her confined story.
What Do You Think: What Makes A Good Memoir?
What do you think?
Let’s start with the list in general. Here are the five points I suggest:
- Good writing
- Personal perspective
- Transformation arc
- Defined purpose
- Depth: Answers the question “Why Should I Read This?”
Do you agree with these points? Are there any that you would add or subtract?
Let’s get to the books specifically.
Have you read either of these memoirs? What were your responses? I’m looking forward to our book club discussion for The Rules Do Not Apply because I am sure it will bring out something that I have not considered.
What are your favorite memoirs?
A couple more that I recommend are Educated by Tara Westover, Let Justice Roll Down by John Perkins, and Born a Crime by Trevor Noah. If those aren’t of interest, you may find the one or two memoirs on this list of Favorite Non-Fiction About Women to be worth your time.