Women And Memoirs: When A Little Narcissism Is A Good Thing

Serial memoirist Mary Karr has a new book out, and in a Double X interview she shares some interesting insights about women's autobiographical writing — and some annoying shit about how much god likes her.

Onetime Jezebel editor Jessica Grose writes that Karr keeps a warning above her desk: letters that spell out "HUBRIS." She might still need it. When Grose asks Karr about her conversion to Catholicism, she says,

Somebody said to me, "So, you think you've had all this success because God likes you better than other writers?" And I said, "Absolutely!" Because of my faith, I do have a sense that I'm supposed to be alive on the planet. Which, given the way I was brought up, I didn't exactly have going in.

On the one hand, Karr has struggled with alcoholism and depression (the subjects of her new book, Lit), and it's hard to begrudge or anything that has given her a sense of place in the world. On the other, it's more than a little obnoxious for a writer who has benefited from the capricious whims of the literary market to claim that her success comes from God's favor. If she's right, God must be really into Dan Brown.

Of course, Karr is right that secular people will always have some difficulty with talk about religion. She says, "Talking about spiritual matters to a secular audience is like doing card tricks on the radio. It's like, 'This is really cool, everybody,' and they're like, 'Yeah, OK!' So I know that it sounds a little nutty." As a nonbeliever, I guess I'm listening to Karr's card tricks over the radio, and perhaps I've missed some nuance in her claim about God's love. In any case, the interview is more interesting when it deals with women and memoir. Grose asks,

I've read a lot of interviews recently with young female memoirists who say things like, "I'm writing this memoir to help other people," and I always find that to be disingenuous. And I wonder if you had any insight into why female memoirists, specifically, have this need to claim altruism, why they feel that something being a good story isn't enough of a reason to tell it.

And Karr responds:

You know, I think it actually has to do with what it means to be feminine in this culture. If you betray a family confidence, it's not seen as appropriately feminine. It's one reason, maybe, that men's memoirs, especially about adolescence, are so much easier to write. Because for a man to say, "And then I pushed my father down on the ground and stormed out of the house and stole the car," is, in a way, what a man does to come of age. For a woman to betray family secrets or intimacies is seen as particularly grotesque or masculinizing.

I didn't [write] it to help anybody. I did it for the money. I did it because I'm greedy and I like living in New York.

Karr's claim that she "did it for the money" is its own kind of bravado, but interestingly, it's a kind more common for male writers, who sometimes feel the need to counteract the supposedly effete nature of artistic endeavor by making it all about cold hard cash. Karr does happen to be in the (perhaps) enviable position of being able to write for money, but there are more lucrative careers, and Karr dances around one primary motive for memoir: narcissism.

The term has taken a big beating in the media lately, but Karr is right — it's something we've always tolerated in male writers. What else but narcissism could motivate someone to write his autobiography, not to help anyone, but simply because he considers his own life a good story? Such impulses have given us some great books, and without the narcissism of artists, society would be a lot less interesting. Still, we tend to forget this when women speak up to tell their stories — we call them out for oversharing or airing the family's dirty laundry, unless of course their books are good for us in some way. Men are allowed to be entertainers, but too often, we expect women to be teachers or nurses.

So maybe Karr's hubris is actually kind of refreshing. I don't think we all need to be swaggering around like Norman Mailer, but I do think arrogance in women is so demonized that it's nice to see it flare up from time to time. Writing is a pretty useless act, on the face of it, and also very self-centered. You can justify it to yourself by pretending you're helping people, but I'm not at all sure that books written with the intent to help actually do so. The other option is just to be convinced that your bullshit is intrinsically worth reading. And in order to do this, you may have to believe something crazy, like that God actually likes you best.

God's Favorite Writer [Double X]