- The Washington Times - Friday, February 5, 2010


By Mary Karr

HarperCollins, $25.99,400 pages


By Diana Athill

Norton, $24.95, 192 pages


In “Memoir: A History,” released at the end of last year, Ben Yagoda writes that according to Nielsen BookScan, which traces 70 percent of total book sales, the category Personal Memoirs increased 400 percent from 2004 to 2008. In Britain, memoirs accounted for seven of the top 10 best-selling nonfiction hardcovers for 2007 and 2008. We seem to be fascinated by the intimate confessions of other people’s life stories, whether they are true or not.

The current darling of New York, Mary Karr of “The Liars ‘Club” and “Cherry,” has, after seven years, produced “Lit,” volume three of her middle-aged life. The previous two detailed her hardscrabble Texas childhood and adolescence, of which Entertainment Weekly rated “The Liars’ Club” No. 4 in the top 100 books published in the past 25 years.

In “Lit,” Ms. Karr tells about her descent into alcoholism and madness, her marriage and divorce, the birth of her son and, finally, her redemption through faith. In “Lit,” we delve into that genre of memoir that has been multiplying steadily with tiresome regularity: profanity-peppered, tough-talking, gum-chewing, drug-filled, alcohol-hazed, incest/abused.

You will find echoes in such current best-sellers as “Eat, Pray, Drink, Love,” in which Elizabeth Gilbert has cashed in on her descriptions of all four in different geographic locations, and David Small’s cartoon-memoir, “Stitches,” the account of his miserable childhood wherein he blames his parents for giving him cancer.

What is so compelling about “Lit” that it should hold our interest? According to the New York Times, Newsweek, Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, the New Yorker, et al., Ms. Karr’s story is “about all of us.” I hope not.

Then how do we rate the quality of this memoir as a fresh and lasting work of art? Ms. Karr’s writing has been compared to that of Sylvia Plath and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Critical acclaim notwithstanding, I do not see any “poetic sensibility” infused in a single sentence of this vastly overrated book.

If you don’t believe me, go take a look for yourself. Compare a page by Ms. Karr to the elegant prose found in Diana Athill’s “Somewhere Towards the End,” an unflinching memoir that tackles what it means to grow old.

Like Ms. Karr, Ms. Athill is no sentimentalist, nor is she a prude. One of the great book editors of the 20th century, Ms. Athill has written several memoirs, among them “Instead of a Letter” and “Stet,” about her career editing the likes of V.S. Naipaul and Jean Rhys.

In “Somewhere Towards the End,” the 91-year-old Ms. Athill unabashedly acknowledges being “the other woman” who destroyed marriages, reflects what it means to age, lose one’s sexuality and care for loved ones. At random, consider how each author has handled her life story.

First Ms. Karr: “Oh, [expletive], I think. Mother fell down and pissed her pants, Daddy got in fistfights and drank himself to death. (Who but a drunk, I wonder looking back, could sit on a porch alone and get in an argument?) I turned out half-okay; well, a quarter - at least a tenth okay.”

Now Athill: “All through my sixties I felt I was still within hailing distance of middle-age, not safe on its shores, perhaps, but navigating its coastal waters. My seventieth birthday failed to change this because I managed scarcely to notice it, but my seventy-first did change it. Being ‘over seventy’ is being old; suddenly I was aground on the fact and saw that the time had come to size it up.”

Without resorting to cliche, crassness or despondency, Ms. Athill’s prose shines with truthfulness and understanding. You may not personally approve of Ms. Karr or Ms. Athill, their morals, choices, lovers or friendships. But what of it? Neither narrative professes to be happy talk. What is important is how each author has used her talent and insight to express her personal life. One memoir is a self-absorbed adolescent rant that seldom, if ever, elevates the reader to feeling an iota of compassion, to even care what comes next. By contrast, the other is a measured reflection, written by a mature woman who has something to say and who says it well.

At the end of her memoir, Ms. Athill sums up her years on earth with candor and common sense. Although human life is “less than a blink of an eyelid,” she concludes, one’s life can contain many opposites: “serenity and tumult, heartbreak and happiness, coldness and warmth, grabbing and giving.”

Here is Ms. Karr’s take on her own current phase: “[B]y the time Mother died, any of the old anger had been siphoned out of me like poison from a snakebite.”

In “Literary Life: A Second Memoir,” Larry McMurtry, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “Lonesome Dove,” shrugs off the observation that much of his work is no longer reviewed. Instead, he recalls a long-lost book by Ford Madox Ford, titled “New York Is Not America.”

When it comes to heralded memoirs such as “Lit,” I realize I am in the minority when assessing the current bleak literary landscape, littered with books by the truckload. Go to any excellent university library (no, not Kindle) and examine the trash that was once in vogue during the 18th century. Then turn to Samuel Johnson. And consider anew what makes up art that outlasts the ages.

Marion Elizabeth Rodgers is the author of “Mencken: The American Iconoclast.”

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