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Rise and fall of the tell-all

The past is prologue (and epilogue) and all the pages in between, but for many writers the memoir is evolving.

August 15, 2004|Lauren Sandler | Special to The Times

In the earliest days of the 1990s, a young writer named Kathryn Harrison wrote her first novel, "Thicker Than Water," about a young girl, Isabel, in Los Angeles. Isabel lives with her eccentric Jewish grandparents and doesn't meet her father until late in adolescence, when they begin a tortured sexual relationship. Her mother, who appears occasionally and unlovingly throughout Isabel's young life, dies of cancer toward the end of the book.

Sound familiar? Perhaps like a book you may have read, or read about, or heard obsessively discussed on television for a spell? Well, you may be thinking about a book with the same plot and the same author but a different character name. That book was called "The Kiss." And the protagonist was named Kathryn Harrison.

In the six years between those books, a shift occurred in our cultural landscape -- not the gradual rearranging of tectonic plates, but a climate-altering meteor slamming into publishing offices and book review desks around the country. During the early '90s if a writer wanted to write about her experience, she, like Marcel Proust, had to rely on the veiled autobiography in which truth posed a fiction, the roman a clef as old as literature itself. And this summer, stately historical autobiography and paper-wrapper tell-all have melded for the first time in the form of Bill Clinton's tome "My Life."

That dichotomy -- books required by teachers versus those hidden from parents -- existed until Susanna Kaysen and Mary Karr took command of the bestseller lists with their respective true-life stories about institutionalization and child abuse. That was before writers had agents waving away their ideas for "dysfunctional family" novels and pushing them to write it "true."

Harrison saw an opportunity to write the truth of her life as truth -- which, in her case, actually is stranger than fiction. And for some time, literary-scene cocktail parties in Manhattan and book club teas in Montana could talk of little other than this affair between a self-starving blond college student and her minister father.

"Is there a way to tell a stranger that once upon a time I fell from grace, I was lost so deeply in a dark wood that I'm afraid I'll never be safe again?" she wonders in the book. With the explosion of the memoir craze, Harrison found a way to tell every stranger who read her book or tuned into prime-time interview shows or read nearly any magazine published in the country for some time. Her unsmiling publicity shots were ubiquitous, from Vanity Fair to the Weekly Standard.

Like any trend of any variety, from est to disco to trucker hats, a moment inflates and then deflates. Currently, reality television has overwhelmed the crafted word to deliver a fix of other people's impossible truths. While book deals are still struck regularly for autobiography, "There's a general mode of cautiousness about memoirs," says Charlotte Abbott, book news editor for Publishers Weekly. She points to Ann Patchett's top-selling memoir of her friendship with poet -- and memoirist herself -- Lucy Grealy as the benchmark for personal writing this summer, a story of friendship rather than abandonment, commitment rather than rape.

But the Boston Globe's Kate Bolick, who writes a column devoted to memoirs, says she hasn't detected a backlash against confessional writing. As she sees it, memoirs have just lately shifted toward what she calls "self-defamation," a form of confession. Stories have veered away from the passive look-what-happened-to-me genre to the active check-out-what-I-did voice.

"All memoirists have to struggle with how they're going to represent themselves, which usually means concealing flaws, but these days people seem to be choosing to not only reveal them but revel in them," she says. Bolick notes that David Denby's recent book, "American Sucker," is an exercise in "painting himself a fool" and that Brad Land's own frat-boy story, "Goat," is a portrait of the self as "thin-skinned and weird and 'unmanly.' "

And Bolick has seen what she regards as one of the quintessential examples of self-defamation: Random House recently published a book called "The Mother Knot" in which she says the author "paints herself as morbidly self-involved and nearly hysterical about it."

That author? Kathryn Harrison.

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