MAILANDER ON MEMOIRS - The motivation behind writing a memoir has changed dramatically over the past two decades—and some would even say the motivation has devolved across the years.
Before Jerry Springer and the publishing trade’s long, long epoch of diminishing returns, the memoir was mostly the domain of reward: a linear chronicle of cheery, ever-ascending career arcs, biographical pretense, gossip, realized dreams, and celebrity voyeurism. It has for a long time been at its best a personal and dignified crowning moment, or a late-life coming to terms with whom one may be and what one may have done.
But in the overcharged 1990’s, when personal indulgence thrived and easy money could pad reckless decisions and addictions to the brink of ruin, the memoir as a literary form became profoundly vulgarized in both the tawdry and democratic senses of the word. Serving an increasing appetite for real data on the consequences of bad decisions and personal failures, it also became less of an end-of-lifecycle repository of wisdom and more of midlife contamination narrative. Far worse, since the 1990’s, the memoir has been obliged to compete with junk TV and an ever-flattening reading culture.
And the contemporary memoir found its market: the contemporary memoir indeed found a bottom in the past few years, even as its redemptive-hopeful protagonists found one too. The spate of sad falsifications—there was even one falsified account of holocaust survival—that have made it through willful publishers’ screens (and even less surprisingly, through the publicity-generous filtering of less-skilled book reviewers) have also given the once-noble memoir a bad genre name.
But even in decline, memoirs remain useful documents, and because the barrier of entry is lower, they are presently more eclectic than ever. Even the worst tell us how those of us who write, however well or poorly, imagine ourselves to be, and show what we have done to ourselves to get to this point. The better ones include vivid descriptions of place and also capture healthy doses of a culture, shedding some light on the way others actually live. And there are many that have bucked the bottom-fishing trend and remained honorable to the memoir’s top duty: to demonstrate how a life might successfully be led, even against considerable odds.
For me, the recent LA memoir that accomplishes the most in telling us who we are is Alice Bag’s “Violence Girl: East LA Rage to Hollywood Stage.” The 2011 title is a scrappy account, resplendent with scrapbook-like photos, that tracks the progress of the eastside girl born Alicia Armendariz, who became a local punk star and also a talented writer in her own right. Her book is mostly a survivor’s tale focusing on how the domestic violence she witnessed early in life and how she transformed it into her dynamic (and often injurious) Chicana Punk performances; and it also affords a generous glimpse into LA’s storied punk scene of nearly two generations ago.
Those hoping to glean a sense of place and the kind of psychological constructions that demonize LA won’t be disappointed in this book either; Los Angeles and especially East LA is Alice’s best backstage. Her memories of First Street episodes and especially of her father(“everything I know about the deep, dark, ugly side of mankind, I learned from my father”) are the kind of LA grit that the city’s noir poseurs can only aspire to emulate. The book’s slices of punk life from thirty-five years ago also document a flashpoint for a city rich with talent and anger, erupting into something completely oppositional to the feel-good, pastoral, and often saccharine Laurel Canyon melodies and glistening surf music of the preceding decade.
In “When We Were Outlaws: a Memoir of Love and Revolution,” tough investigative journalist Jeanne Córdova, a thriving survivor of the top glory days of the old LA Free Press, documents not only fringe political movements but also the rise of the “lesbian tide” in 1970’s Los Angeles, even while offering concomitant personal glimpses into what lesbian life was like in the decade. Córdova engages the lesbian sub-currents of society’s most extremist and anarchic margins while trying to manage a domestic partnership that runs vividly emo.
Despite the acclaim the book has fetched as a book from the edge and from a time when there actually was a sincerely anarchic “New Left,” some contemporary women do not like the relationship drama in Córdova’s book. But to others the work fascinating and extremely worthwhile, an honest measure of the extreme pressures such relationships endured at the time, as well as an honest cultural history of political and cultural extremism in ‘70’s LA and ‘70’sAmerica.
When memoirs are truly redemptive and we can later see that the redemptive process has taken root and flourished, the titles are certainly worth revisiting. I read Heather King's "Redeemed: A Spiritual Misfit Stumbles Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding" when it was new five years ago, and struck up a friendship with the author right at the time of its release. Every now and then I run into King in Atwater or Silver Lake and she remains every bit as redeemed (and as healthy--the book is not only a recounting of her strung out days but also of her bout with breast cancer) as I found her the day I met her. As much an extremist (yet mostly apolitical) Christian who engages her spiritual life as fervently as any figure one might meet in Córdova's "When We Were Outlaws," she still writes one of Catholicism's top secular blogs, Shirt of Flame, with the same kind of zeal with which she wrote her signature book.
While memoirs of a decade ago—books such as James Brown’s “Los Angeles Diaries” and Strawberry Saroyan’s “Girl Walks into a Bar”—helped make the idea of memorializing a mistake-riddled youth and a Bukowski- or Céline-tinged, sordid life more palatable to mainstream readers, the genre also necessarily includes occasional severe Kindle blowouts. These are easy to spot: typically their Amazon pages feature glowing reviews from friends who are not bookish and who have never reviewed other titles, but little true critical feedback, from which their authors typically shirk.
As a general rule of thumb, the more a would-be memoirist stands on the heads of his Facebook and Twitter friends alone, insisting that they write reviews and buy the book, the more likely the book has nothing at all to recommend it. But I like to take chances on all kinds of memoirs, even when I know when they'll be bad. Even the worst ones can be informative as clinical studies in confounded, confused psyches—and who in Los Angeles doesn’t deal with these on a daily basis?
Despite the problems with which the genre has been plagued in recent years, with far fewer sober and literary adults engaged in the increasingly commercial book trade, there are nonetheless wealth of contemporary Angeleno memoirs that lend insight regarding who we are and how we got here.
LA's next decade will bring us a vast changing of the guard, with a new Mayor, a new City Council, new power brokers, new relationships to labor and unions, and certain-to-come new-found rights for the minoritized and dispossessed. Applying the lessons of memoirs to a contemporary Los Angeles that figures to change dramatically in the upcoming decade may help the City's readers come to terms with who lives here, why they indeed do live here, and what they might expect from the others who also share our own public time and public space in what Carey McWilliams called "this weirdly inflated village."
(Joseph Mailander is a writer, an LA observer and a contributor to CityWatch. He is also the author of New World Triptych and The Plasma of Terror. Mailander blogs at www.josephmailander.com.) Photo credit: Dan Krauss