I read few memoirs and biographies, perhaps as a reaction against the trendy popularity of both forms over the past 10-15 years, but more significantly because of my sense of the ultimate limitations of the conventional sort of "life writing" represented by memoir and biography as they now exist. I can't really remember the last memoir I was able to read all the way through, and I generally read biographies only of literary and historical figures in whom I already have an interest and even then only after I have become familiar with the writer or thinker's work and have read most of the important commentary on that work.
In a January 11 column posted at Triangle.com , the online site of The News and Observer (link originally found at Arts & Letters Daily), J. Peder Zane criticizes the contemporary memoir for its superficiality and misunderstanding of the possibilities of the memoir. According to Zane, current memoirists
want the best of both worlds: fiction's flexibility and nonfiction's oomph. Their efforts do not represent
a moral failure because they think they are pushing the envelope, not breaking the rules. Instead, they signify a failure of the imagination, a lack of the talent or courage required to make their own
lives -- their real lives -- compelling.
This is an insightful comment, and I would take it further. It is not only fiction's "flexibility" memoirists seem to be after, but the form and feel of fiction, at least in its conventional, pre-modern/postmodern manifestation. The specific memoir Zane discusses, for example, Susan Shapiro's Five Men Who Broke My Heart, does indeed seem inspired by an idea--the narrator finds five old boyfriends in an attempt to "find out what went wrong"--that could have been transformed into a novel if the author had more trust in and commitment to the literary imagination. That Shapiro further chose to alter the "facts" in her treatment of the subject nevertheless only reinforces the sense that she wanted the narrative economy of fiction but thought that "real life" was preferable to made-up stories. Memoirists seem to occupy a half-world of actual experience only partially submitted to narrative transformation.
If memoirs could be said to now substitute for traditional 1st-person confessional fiction, biographies seem to satisfy the need for the kind of 3rd-person omniscience associated with much 19th century fiction. Many current biographies even replicate the density and the heft of the Victorian "triple-decker." If the memoir provides the intimacy of the 1st-person narrative, perhaps the biography provides a corresponding need for some perspective and dispassionate reflection. In my experience, however, this sort of biography produces (with some exceptions) mostly tedium. A relatively recent biography of Emily Dickinson, for example, which I went to out of the preexisting interest mentioned above, barely got me past the first few pages, which clearly indicated the book was going to go into exhaustive detail about the Dickinson family, in the style of a historical novel, when I was looking for useful information about Dickinson and her work.
Maybe this sort of clutching onto the conventions of realistic narrative should only be expected when serious literary fiction has in many ways abandoned those conventions. (Even minimalism and contemporary neorealism seem blanched and attenuated in comparison to the novels of Hardy or Dickens or Steinbeck.) Memoir and biography keep them alive for some readers, readers who apparently still want them alive. I think it just as plausible, however, to consider the real "failure of imagination" to be among those who retreat from the challenges of imaginative fiction, especially in its more innovative forms, for the established safety of the familiar and the traditional. Certainly the memoir especially should not be taken as a "literary" form simply because it imitates literary forms of the past. Perhaps the more challenging styles of contemporary fiction will inevitably attract a smaller audience (although this need not be the case), but I can't think of it as a service to literature to settle for the tried and true merely because it's more popular.