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?