Dispatches | January 31, 2011

I generally try to be nonplussed by book awards, mostly because it seems to me that just publishing a book at a time when books are going the way of the polar bear is its own gargantuan accomplishment.  But despite my skepticism toward the Pulitzer Prize, the Caldecott Medal and the National Book Award as dependable means for determining the worth of certain books – which is, I admit, more of a pose than a thought-out position – I recently read Patti Smith’s National Book Award-winning memoir Just Kids.

I wanted to like this book, just as I want to like every book I read.  But I was prevented from liking it, at first, by such sentences as these two:  “I always loved the ride to Coney Island.  Just the idea that you could go to the ocean via subway was so magical.”  I couldn’t help but feel that a superior writer would do something more with this, and would work that “magical” feeling into a description of the ride to Coney Island, rather than simply state that the ride was magical and move on, which for me falls a little flat.  I kept running into this same problem throughout reading Just Kids, encountering whole paragraphs at a time that seemed like potholes in a badly paved road.  As I read, I put my airport traveling companion through the unfortunate experience of having to watch me be exasperated, which is not something anyone should have to see, least of all during a three-hour flight delay in Los Angeles.

The book, of course, has value beyond its constituent sentences.   What I appreciated about it immediately was the way in which Smith evokes New York City in the Sixties and Seventies.  Her account of walking into a bar and seeing both Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix having dinner with less famous people, undisturbed by the hordes of paparazzi who seem to swarm even minor celebrities today, speaks volumes about that time and place and how dramatically things have changed since then.  One of the accomplishments of Smith’s memoir is that despite its weaknesses it does this documentary work, which seems incidental to its project of offering a portrait of its author and Robert Mapplethorpe.

I realized, about halfway through reading the book, that when I was so upset with its sentences I was making the same mistake that other people make when they engage in the popular sport of categorically dismissing the memoir.  Just Kids is a celebrity memoir, and the acknowledgment of this is central to understanding what its purpose is, who its intended audience is, and what sort of literary value one ought to look for in it.  A celebrity memoir, unlike a more literary memoir, has its audience picked out for it; you wouldn’t buy Mia Farrow’s memoir if you didn’t have some preexisting interest in or sympathy for Mia Farrow.  A memoir like Kathy Dobie’s The Only Girl in the Car – which is wonderfully written, with sentences and paragraphs that made me positively swoon last week – has no such prerequisites.  This is why reviewing a few memoirs and concluding, based on one’s impressions of those few, that the memoir as a whole is not worth anything, is misleading and backward.

It’s not a perfectly symmetrical equivalent, but a science fiction novel, like a celebrity memoir, has its readers picked out for it, and if you went looking for prose like Marilynne Robinson’s in a vampire romance novel – or if you read Housekeeping expecting Twilight – you would be disappointed, to say the least.  All dismissals of the memoir as a genre are premised upon ignoring such distinctions as this one.

The memoir was bashed most recently by someone at the New York Times, as has been recently noted by Sam Ligon at Bark and Dinty Moore at Brevity’s blog.  Dinty’s response is my favorite so far.

Robert Long Foreman is The Missouri Review’s Social Media Editor.