A common criticism of memoirs is their tendency towards self-indulgence. The claim being that the reader should be offended by the author’s lack of restraint regarding the importance of the details of their life. I reject this criticism.
All art requires a certain degree of arrogance. Even the most humble creator needs to regard their ideas as being somewhat important before they put them out into the world: By writing this blog post, I am making an inherent claim that my thoughts are valuable and that you should take time out of your day to read them.
I don’t think artists need to be humble or ashamed by the value they place on the things they produce. While Kanye West has said some things that I find pretty objectionable, I don’t think he should be criticized for his arrogance. He’s one of the greatest musicians and collaborators in the history of pop music: Why should he be humble about it?
When people say something is self-indulgent, the claim is that the artist’s sense of importance is greater than the actual value of the work. I would argue that the problem isn’t artist’s high opinion of themselves, but rather is the flaws you see in the work. I believe it wrong to then transfer these criticisms onto the character of the artists themselves.
I recently made a knee-jerk cry of self-indulgence at the end of Carrie Brownstein’s memoir about her time in the band Sleater-Kinney. After they disbanded, she became obsessed with helping animals and spends a whole chapter describing the individual personalities of her cats and dogs. Does she really think that anyone will care about her pets as much as she does? The nerve of that woman!
However, the real problem wasn’t her self-indulgence. I mean, I was interested enough in her life to sit down and read a whole book about it: She was fulfilling her end of the bargain. The absence of music in her life meant that she needed to find something new to pour herself into, and this turned out to be animals. The same section would have made perfect sense in a work of fiction; it was part of her character arc as a human being. To act like this was an affront on me as a reader was completely unfounded.
The real issue was far simpler: it was boring. The writing failed to convey the emotional stakes of the situation and I became uninterested in the story. Earlier this year I read a whole book about a woman training a hawk to get over the death of her father and it was absolutely amazing and she wasn’t even in an incredible band! The issue wasn’t arrogance on the part of the author, it was just that the chapter itself was uninspiring.
An even bigger problem with claims of self-indulgence is the uneven way that they are applied. When reading book reviews, I see the complaint levied against memoirs by women far more often than memoirs by men. Individual female experience seems to be thought of as less universal by many critics and criticism seems to more quickly move towards the artist’s character rather than the work itself. Men who go on endlessly about long treks in the snow and write about disdain harboured against their children are praised for their understanding of human struggle, whereas women who write in the same sphere are more likely to be subjected to think-pieces on their flawed parenting and claims that their lives aren’t important enough to be worthy of textual capture. This is quite obviously bullshit.
Artists should think what they have to say is important and they shuoldn’t be criticized for it. If their work fails to capture your attention, then criticize it on those grounds. However, if you find yourself resenting an author for their desire to share a personal experience, you should take pause and consider just where this offence is coming from.