What Successful Memoirs Accomplish

They make personal narrative into art: Your weekly guide to the best in books

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Getty; The Atlantic

When she read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness, a book about Manguso’s lifelong diary that never quotes from that text itself, Leslie Jamison felt ashamed of her own desire for personal details, “guilty for wanting the more traditionally confessional narrative,” she writes. This guilt points to the way memoir, as a genre, is often regarded: as solipsistic unburdening on the part of the writer, and as naked voyeurism on the part of the reader.

Even the adjective that Jamison uses, confessional, communicates this. We tend to imagine the memoirist as a naive spiller of information about their life, as in religious confession, rather than the intentional constructor of a narrative; notably, this attitude is most frequently applied to women who write about love, sex, and parenthood. In her collection Not One Day, Anne Garréta proves the limits of this stigma. She sets out to write, every day, about one woman she has desired or who has desired her, intending to “subject [herself] to the discipline of confessional writing.” By turning revelation into something that requires rigor and intentionality, and by giving herself narrow stipulations on what she will include, Garréta demonstrates the craft and restraint inherent to even seemingly raw personal writing.

Annie Ernaux, who won this year’s Nobel Prize in Literature, similarly uses intimate events from her life as tools in a larger project, Nellie Hermann writes. The Ernaux books that are usually called “memoirs,” such as Happening, about the abortion she had when she was a young woman, and A Girl’s Story, an account of her first sexual encounter, are also experiments in the sufficiency of language to capture experience. Ernaux has written that she aims to “test the limits of writing, push the closeness to reality as far as it would go.”

Memoir, then, can uncover the banal’s relevance to both the art of writing and to our lives in general. Hua Hsu’s book Stay True, a coming-of-age story about a friendship he had in college, “is powerful because in many ways, his story is unremarkable,” our critics write. And in her book Communion, bell hooks shares and analyzes her personal experiences of intimacy—including the end of a 15-year partnership—in order to teach us how romantic love can be cultivated. In these books, we might see autobiography not as a site of mere disclosure, but, as Jamison writes, as “collaborative inquiry, author and reader facing the same questions from inside their inevitably messy lives.”

Every Friday in the Books Briefing, we thread together Atlantic stories on books that share similar ideas. Know other book lovers who might like this guide? Forward them this email.

Read The Atlantic 10: These books, published in 2022, impressed us with their force of ideas, drew us in not because of some platonic ideal of greatness, but because they got our brains working and presented fresh angles on the world. In a phrase, they were good to think with.

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What We’re Reading

An illustration of a figure standing inside another figure's head, working on a tablet.

Andre Da Loba

Enough about me
“Both books offer a vision of personal experience as something intellectually constructed rather than nakedly exposed; in their pages, revelation is a mode of self-scrutiny rather than a plea for absolution or attention.”

A silhouetted figure walking through a dark, narrow tunnel toward light.

Peter Nicholls

Anne Garréta’s very different sort of confessional writing
“What does desire look like and to whom does it belong? And why is she writing these personal stories in the second-person—or, rather, for whom? True to her origins, Garréta doesn’t answer outright but rather pulls the reader into a little literary game.”

Annie Ernaux

Isabelle Eshraghi / Agence VU / Redux

The year I tore through Annie Ernaux’s books
“Annie Ernaux, who won the Nobel Prize yesterday at 82, is a writer unparalleled, at least within the limits of my knowledge, in her frankness, her willingness to lay herself bare, to let the seams show in her excavations of the past.”

An illustration of a book with turning pages

Julia Schimautz

The Atlantic 10: The most thought-provoking books of 2022
Stay True summons Hsu’s memories of Ken—how he looked taking a drag of a cigarette, how it felt to see his handwriting after he died—along with references to Jacques Derrida, the Beach Boys, and Marcel Mauss as the author attempts to make sense of the senseless ending of one of the most consequential friendships of his life.”

A tissue box shaped like a stack of books

Tyler Comrie / The Atlantic; Getty; Alamy

The best books for a broken heart
“The prospect of creating a bond that lives up to hooks’s uncompromising vision can be daunting. This book will make you want to try.”

About us: This week’s newsletter is written by Christina McCausland. The book she’s reading next is Eastbound, by Maylis De Kerangal, translated by Jessica Moore.

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