Michelle Dean wrote an article for New York Magazine this week titled “How to Win at the Women’s Memoir Game.” It examines the critical reception of women’s memoirs, work often reviewed as “oversharing.” For some reason, women’s memoirs are commonly dismissed as attempts to tell silly, sensationalized, or simply much too personal stories.
In regards to personal or “confessional” writing, Dean writes:
“The ‘confessional’ impulse has actually never been strictly a Woman Thing — just look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Crack-Up or Robert Lowell’s poetry, for starters. But the accusation that a writer has taken it to extremes, beyond art into sensationalism, usually is leveled at us alone.”
She cites Lena Dunham and Cat Marnell as two women who have recently scored book deals for their memoirs–works anticipated to be highly personal tell-alls. The confessional nature of their books, however, makes them targets for criticism, especially in conversations about “serious literature.”
More seasoned memoirists such as Joan Didion, Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert, however, have managed to escape some of this criticism. Why? Perhaps, Deen muses, because in their books “the sex is less prominent and the focus tends to be on personal tragedies that are more sympathetic to a wider audience.” In other words, in the eyes of critics, they’re not telling stories defined by their gender, or so clearly written for a female audience.
She concludes the discussion of their success with the observation that “there are, actually, degrees of craft involved in writing yourself, as Nora Ephron put it, as the heroine of your own life.”
Deen’s conversation about the type of critical response that women’s “confessional” or “oversharing” memoirs receive reminds me of the impostor syndrome, a psychological phenomenon in which people do not feel like they deserve their success. It’s a common experience among women, and it causes us to question the worthiness of our work and achievements.
The experience of feeling unworthy or untalented doesn’t come out nowhere, though. Women writers are especially scrutinized, and their work often taken less seriously than men’s. For this to change, women’s writing must be evaluated as writing first. And on that note, perhaps we should stop classifying anything created by a woman as “women’s” altogether.