The problem with ‘me’ in ‘memoir’

Here’s a good and well-written piece of review journalism that offers an insight into why some memoirs work and others don’t. It’s by no means the definitive work on the subject, but a pretty good summary (which is about all you can ask of a print journalist working to a tight word count).

Just as interesting as Genzlinger’s argument for the existence of editors is the long tail of comments he’s attracted. Many simply applaud the reviewer, but he appears to have wounded a sizeable group by suggesting (as his online illustrator has so brilliantly depicted) that too much ‘me’ gives ‘memoir’ an off-putting pong.

It seems what Genzlinger is saying, and what many of the outraged commentators are missing, is that personal experience in itself does not make for a good story. It’s when that experience steps into the realm of the universal that others empathise and become hooked. Certainly the first person singular is important in memoir writing – it’s personal, after all – but there’s nothing like a good third person singular overview from an editor to separate the wheat from the chaff.

If writers listened to them, there’s be a lot fewer opportunities for Genzlinger and others to skewer flawed efforts.

The cost of marriage but not as we know it

What would William have had to do to win Kate’s hand in marriage if he had lived in Zaïre in the 1970s? He’d have had to pay a ‘bride price’ determined by Kate’s dad and deemed fair and reasonable by the whole community. And if he hadn’t managed to deliver the price by the deadline or in a manner that showed proper respect for his new father-in-law, the marriage would have been off!

That’s what Warwickshire author Ian Mathie says in his new book, ‘BRIDE PRICE’, which is launched on 2 March 2011. And he should know. Ian, who lived and worked in remote parts of Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) as a rural development officer and water resources expert, found himself in a sticky situation when he had to set the bride price for an orphan whom he fostered.

The trouble was that the suitor was no Prince William: he was a powerful man from another village, greatly feared for his violence and temper, and it was Ian himself, not the orphan girl, who was the target of his bullying scheme. “Custom dictated that I could not refuse the man’s request no matter how nasty or evil he was,” says Ian, “and meanwhile the other villagers were powerless to intervene.” So Ian was forced to rely on his wits to find a way within the rich traditions of the area to set a fair price that the man would refuse to pay.

‘BRIDE PRICE’ tells the intriguing and surprising true story of how the problem was resolved. Set in the brooding vastness of the tropical rain forest, it provides intimate insights into the lives of a little-known people and their complex relationship with their environment, the spirits and the outside world, and is sure to provide an interesting contrast to ‘The Wedding’ hype.