Thursday, October 18, 2012


My parents liked to read. There were tall, filled bookshelves in the living room. I got deeply involved with the Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew, then horse books. In boarding school bliss was weekend afternoons when every girl lay silently on her single bed, reading and eating candy freshly purchased from the tiny candy shop improvised by Sister Anthony on a card table.

By the time I was in my teens I had found home in books -- grown-up ones now, ones often purloined from the shelves in the living room. I read novels. I read fiction. That's where the art was then. And I promised myself that if I did anything with my life, I was going to find a way to become one of those magic people who could write fiction and create worlds that were more real to me than the ones presented anywhere else.

Forty years later, I don't read fiction anymore. At least, not contemporary fiction. The last novel I read was The God of Small Things back in the mid-nineties. And that was a helluva book to end on. I read it twice.

But I can't bear current fiction now. We have memoir now. We have broken through that barrier and someone can tell their story now directly and fully without the clothing of fiction.

When George Eliot was writing, or Jean Rhys, or Virginia -- the language of memoir that we have now did not exist. People had to put their memoir into fiction. And when you read good fiction from back then -- something I still do -- you can hear the writer's thinking bleeding through the story. I still read old fiction with enthusiasm. And I've been wondering why I like fiction in old books, but have no interest when it comes to the new fiction.

I pick up a new novel now, open it, and as soon as I read the first sentence -- about someone who does not exist -- I lose interest. There is nothing at stake.

I want the writer to be willing to show themselves as blatantly as possible on the page. I look hard for good contemporary memoir. When I am lucky and I come across it then I hardly put the book down until I am finished. I can't. The pleasure is too great.

But good memoir is hard to come by, and to fill the gap I have been returning to fiction from the 1940s and further back into the 19th century. I would still rather read a good current memoir. But these old books keep me going. I am grateful for them, rich and deep, the soil I came from.


  1. I still do read a lot of fiction, and always look for fiction that makes me know myself, see myself. Lately that seems to have taken the form of short stories, for some reason.

    But I'm with you about the stunning power and force of memoir, and about the importance of that taken-down veil. As you said once, and as I requote all the time, the stakes are just so high with memoir, and I've become too old to play for low stakes. Thank you for this thought-provoking post!

  2. Thank you, Lori, for what you add. love, m

  3. Enjoyed this Marta. It's "evolutionary." :)

    It got me to thinking...I didn't read much growing up. My mom used to read paperbacks silently to herself. I think they were romance novels.

    Sometime in the past few years when I was asking my sister (7 years older than I)about some of my emotional memories in order for me to maybe piece together some facts; my sister shared that my dad used to read Edgar Allan Poe out loud to us kids. I do recall the thumping heart in the wall.

    Even as a youngster I wanted something real. When I did read, I enjoyed books written from an animal's if the animal could write. I also enjoyed books about the supernatural, like "Chariots of the Gods." Ha.

    In my 40s I began reading lots of self-help books. One thing I like(d) about them is the author's story, which often comes up in the self-help books I've read. I may not recall the self-help "technique," but I'll recall snippet's a person's story.

    I have four favorite fiction books. Two would be considered children's books. One of those is "Bambi" by Felix Salton. I never read it until I had children and I would read to them out loud. We'd go to the library and pick out books. I read chapter books to them.

    I read some autobiographical type books to my children; not sure if they'd be considered memoir. We found addresses for two of the authors. Each child wrote the author, and I also. Each author wrote back. I still have the letters.

    Well, this was a long comment. Thanks for memory lane.


    1. Great to hear from you, OnePerson, and I deeply enjoyed hearing what came up -- memories of childhood reading, books, mother. I remember reading Bambi, the real book, I loved it and often think back to it. Thank you for reading and for letting me in on your response. sending love, m

  4. When you wrote,

    "I've been wondering why I like fiction in old books, but have no interest when it comes to the new fiction"

    I recognized that I feel that way too. When I was in my late 30s, I decided to 'catch up' on fiction, after having spent about a decade reading only non-fiction. And so for the first time I read a bunch of G Elliot, H James, T Hardy, etc... And yet, when I've tried to 'get current' and read contemporary fiction, I find it hard. I wonder whether the memoir aspect of Elliot (I've never read Rhys) is true for the other 19th century British authors that I enjoy, and whether that's what draws me to them. I haven't thought about that.

    1. Hi Jon, I was happy to hear your thoughts -- you add that most of these old novels we like are English, that's true, I hadn't thought of that -- though some of the early 20th c. ones are American in my case. They are rich and wonderful. Thank you for reading and responding. It was a pleasure to hear of your own experiences with reading.

  5. Hi Marta - I'm not going to defend "current fiction," whatever that is (teenage paranormal horror romance?), but I have to question your premise: "We have broken through that barrier and someone can tell their story now directly and fully without the clothing of fiction."

    Fiction is not just clothing draped over memoir to disguise the author's need to tell "their story." From the writer's point of view, the core goals of fiction and memoir are entirely different. Fiction aims to create new worlds (lives); memoir aims to report on this world (life). Creative vs. reportorial... this is not a value judgment, just an acknowledgment that these are different intentions that come from different parts of the heart and mind.

    Just my opinion of course. I rarely read memoir, but a new one that I loved is (contemporary fiction author) Paul Auster's latest, The Winter Journal. His other memoir from long ago, The Invention of Solitude, is another favorite. I haven't loved all his fiction, but much of it is at the top of my list.

    What if there's a current author out there right now writing fiction on the level of, say, Nabokov? It might be possible. I'll keep my eyes open.

  6. Dear Brent, Thank you very much for reading this piece and responding so fully. It is great when someone engages as deeply as you do.

    I was seeking to answer for myself why I enjoy reading novels from farther back in history (when memoir as we know it now did not exist), but not current fiction, even when it is considered literary and groundbreaking.

    People did not write their own stories 100 years ago the way they are beginning to now, and I think that is relevant to why I like older literature.

    I just find people's own stories much more interesting than made up ones. I was in Penn Station yesterday amongst throngs of people, and I wished each one of them could write down what they have lived. Maybe then I'd have enough reading material to last me awhile.

    And I don't think the word "reportorial" belongs with memoir, not memoir as I use the word. "Reportorial" sounds like a newspaper account, which is not at all what I like to read. I respond to the revelation of the person through their natural writing voice and the way they choose instinctively to tell their story on the page. This is what separates -- for me -- the best writers of memoir from those less accomplished.

    Thank you VERY much for the two suggestions of memoirs you have liked. I will hunt them down immediately!

    And your memoir pieces are some of the very best I've ever read.


  7. I also find it hard to read fiction now that I read memoirs. One of the best memoirs I've read is The Dog Who Came to Stay by Hal Borland. It was published in 1961. I didn't want it to end.