Reading Across Generations

In my last post, I mentioned best-selling author Tawni O’Dell’s observation that reading is the best way to improve your writing. In line with that advice, I read piles of memoirs. I recently read two memoirs written by authors three decades younger than I, and at first I found them disconcerting. In general and compared to my own, the younger generation has a rather cavalier attitude toward sex, living together out of wedlock, and unwed parenthood, so it’s no surprise that such topics are openly covered in memoir in ways sometimes approaching reality television. I was challenged to suspend judgment and accept the authors’ Truth at face value. Once I was able to do this, I could more fully appreciate their views of the world.

From there I also realized that shock value had obscured certain aspects of the stories. One of the authors seemed to be relying on sensationalism to hold reader attention. The story had little substance and never came to any closure or significant insight. This account of a daughter’s dysfunctional relationship with her father didn’t achieve any significant resolution by the end of the story, and served mostly to air a lot of psychic navel gazing. According to Amazon reviews, some people found it hilarious, others thought it never should have been published. There were few mid-range ratings. After discounting the shock factor, based on its literary merit, I tend to agree with the latter.

Aside from a few instances of raised eyebrows, the second book was interesting and eloquently written, with well-developed scenes and delightful description. Although positioned and described as a memoir, it’s actually a collection of free-standing essay-stories, lacking plot and storyline. Each chapter is compellingly written with a generous dose of self-deprecating humor and considerable insight, but little movement. They simply portray deftly described slices of life, focused on a specific theme. As a book of essays, it’s terrific. As a formal memoir, it’s sadly lacking.

I derived several conclusions from reading these books:

  • It’s difficult to read across generations without triggering biases of our own.
  • With creative description, and perhaps a bit of humor, ordinary life can make compelling reading.
  • No matter how much love, sweat and tears we pour into our memoir, it will never appeal to every reader.
  • Stories with plots, tension, and integrated scenes more effectively keep my attention than scattered scenes.
  • If these two books attracted traditional publishers, there’s hope for nearly any story.
  • Reading memoir written by younger generations can be as enlightening as reading memoir written by earlier ones.
Hopefully these observations will prove useful as I progress toward completion of my memoir,  A Los Alamos Girlhood.

Write now: think back through  you have read and explore your feelings about the content. Did you read anything shocking? How did that affect you? What elements of them kept your attention? How can you incorporate these insights into your writing?


Kathleen Pooelr said...

This is a thought-provoking post about generational perspectives on sexuality. My first thought is of the importance of authenicity in our own voices knowing ,as you say, that our stories will not appeal to everyone.The memoir that stands out in my mind for its shock value is Augusten Burroughs "Running with Scissors" for its graphic and outright obscene portrayals. He certainly has a captivating writing style that I imagine is true to his experiences.(Of course, I know he became an overnight success )To each his own..thats' my 2 cents!


Sharon Lippincott said...


Yes, I know what you mean about "Running With Scissors." I also admired that book as well as his brother's book "Don't Look Me in the Eye." "Scissors" was deviant in so many ways that the graphic scenes seemed ... congruent with the rest. Just as many novels seem like memoir, that memoir seemed like fiction! In any case, it's not just sexuality that triggers biases. Anything outside our accustomed cultural milleu is likely to do that. And part of the magic of reading is to be able to safely peer in the windows of lives we'd never otherwise encounter and broaden our perspective as we do.