What makes a good memoir?

Interesting review over at Books and Culture. Elissa Elliot reviews the recently released memoir of Sean Wilsey – an editor at large for McSweeney’s quarterly. Her conclusion is that “Wilsey’s book has all the elements of a good memoir.” She goes on to define what she means:

A good memoir is filled with wit, humor, and wisdom. A good memoir is honest-searingly so-and redemptive. A good memoir is not an easy weekend read; it causes considerable discomfort-that you, too, have done all these things, or might have, in similar circumstances; that you, too, have hurt people this badly. A good memoir says, “Here’s the scumbag I was, but by the grace of God, look what happened!” The proof lies in the final, conciliatory pages, which say, I am what I am because of these people, my family. Thank you.

Two questions for the audience:
1) Do you even read memoirs? Or would just as soon not see another memoir/autobiography published?
2) Is Elliot’s description of a good memoir accurate? Is that what you look for?

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season - oh, and watching golf too).

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3 Comments

  • I don’t read many memoirs, my sense generally being that my life sucks enough as it is, do I really need a control to compare it to? But then you run into something like The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown and you think, oh, I see, this is what a memoir is supposed to be. I haven’t read Wilsey’s book, though I did enjoy the bit in the New Yorker from it, but I find that the memoirs I enjoy most are those written by fiction writers like Brown or Kathryn Harrison or, nominally, Dave Eggars (until that whole part of the book where it really began to, you know, suck). I don’t care about the memoirs of successful people, usually (like Jack Welch or something), which seems odd in retrospect.

  • I don’t read many memoirs, my sense generally being that my life sucks enough as it is, do I really need a control to compare it to? But then you run into something like The Los Angeles Diaries by James Brown and you think, oh, I see, this is what a memoir is supposed to be. I haven’t read Wilsey’s book, though I did enjoy the bit in the New Yorker from it, but I find that the memoirs I enjoy most are those written by fiction writers like Brown or Kathryn Harrison or, nominally, Dave Eggars (until that whole part of the book where it really began to, you know, suck). I don’t care about the memoirs of successful people, usually (like Jack Welch or something), which seems odd in retrospect.

  • I have some memoirs I intend to read for review, but the genre itself doesn’t attract me. I am attracted most by the belief that a book has a good, well-told story. Memoirs that do that are good, and maybe they attract more readers (or different readers) because they run under the “Based on a True Story” heading. History is a source fiction doesn’t usually have, because if your story is true, you can boldly include something ridiculous and if readers react? Well, it really happened that way.