Misery, Memoir, and "Emotional Journalism"

Did you read Benjamin Kunkel’s essay in Sunday’s New York Times Book Review? Titled “Misery Loves a Memoir,” the piece addresses the familiar issue about what’s at the core (or what’s apparently supposed to be at the core) of most contemporary autobiographical writing: “Suffering produces meaning. Life is what happens to you, not what you do. Victim and hero are one. Hence the preponderance of memoirs having to do with mental illness, sexual and other violence, drug and alcohol addiction, bad parents and/or mad or missing loved ones.” There’s nothing too new about Kunkel’s criticism; such commentary often provokes a counter-cry from those who choose to focus on the “redemptive” or “inspirational” aspects of such stories rather than their substance, or “facts.”

But what about writing one step away? What about prose that isn’t officially memoiristic, but rather journalistic? What about the “emotional journalism” that seems increasingly popular in newspapers these days, what Stephanie Shapiro has described as “long narratives about fatal illnesses and disfiguring ailments, particularly when they involve children”? In the June/July 2006 issue of the American Journalism Review, Shapiro writes about this trend. While I’ve noticed some of these extended feature articles–and not infrequently been moved by them–I really haven’t thought much about the intersections between these human interest stories and memoirs. Until now.

“When does a news story become less about providing information and more about manipulating emotions?” Shapiro asks. “When does it become more voyeuristic than revealing? At what point does an effort to elucidate slide hopelessly into pathos?”

When, indeed? Any thoughts? Or thoughts about the similarities and/or differences between memoirs and other nonfiction narratives here?

2 thoughts on “Misery, Memoir, and "Emotional Journalism"

  1. grackyfrogg says:

    an interesting question posed by shapiro. at the heart of it, i suppose, is the question of whether or not journalism shouuld strive for objectivity. i think it has to, else how can those of us who rely on the news really understand the different sides to different issues?

    in this regard, i wonder if news journalism and fiction writing are actually not too far from each other. both (if they are to be done well) require that the author in some measure take a backseat to the story being told. the author listens, absorbs, and tells–not interposing any judgments or moralizing, but simply letting the story tell itself, and trusting the reader to understand and evaluate. when the author decides that he/she is one of the important characters, the movement into voyeurism (potentially) begins.

    that’s why i think memoirs and autobiography might be pretty difficult to handle well. by their nature, the author IS the main character in the story. i imagine it’s hard not to go to the extreme of either too emotional or not emotional enough, when “I” is so inextricably in the way.

    of course, that’s just my opinion at this moment. ask me later, i might come up with a different answer. 🙂 thanks for posing the question, though. good to think about.

  2. postmodernpetah says:

    Kunkel, as far as I know not an author of a memoir, is speaking from a place of ignorance. Memoirs come from an individual, who because they are human, inherently have emotions. In fact, all writing comes from SOMEONE. It doesn’t magically appear on the page. Therefore, there will be emotion behind it.

    Has he not experienced any “suffering” and wanted to share that experience with others? Maybe not.

    My other issue with his essay is that he believes that memoir should be a strict form. Should we listen to his prescriptive advice? I think not. Call me when you have more life experience, and when you have undertaken a memoir of your own, Ben.

    I would have liked to send him the above comments (and more) in an email, but could not find a link anywhere.

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