Enough with the hardship-meets-privilege memoirs

by Kristin on November 3, 2011

in Love, family & community

Photo by davharuk

This mini rant of mine on Twitter yesterday sparked lots of conversation, so I figured it was worthy of a blog post:

Why are so many memoirs of “hardship” by people who can afford to travel in Europe for months while they “recover?”

The huge book-then-movie-sensation Eat, Pray, Love is the most obvious reference here. At Amazon, the book description says this memoir is about “…how [Elizabeth Gilbert] made the difficult choice to leave behind all the trappings of modern American success (marriage, house in the country, career) and find, instead, what she truly wanted from life.”

As someone who went through a divorce a few years before the book came out and was in the process of putting my life back together, the book’s theme was  very appealing to me. But then I found out how Gilbert went about her discovery process: by dedicating a year of her life to travel across Italy, India and Bali.

I couldn’t read the book. I just couldn’t, no matter who raved about it and recommended it, even though I love memoirs and am drawn to divorce stories of hope and healing. It was simultaneously too close and too far from own experience.

My own post-divorce discovery process involved long evenings and weekends alone, single parenting my two little girls. It involved selling a house I loved and moving to a small rental that didn’t even have room for a table that could seat more than three of us. It involved buying my own health insurance and squeezing in as many hours of freelance writing as I could to pay the bills, worrying  each month that I wouldn’t have enough work to continue freelancing. It involved dating the wrong people and walking away from the wrong churches, and the lonely process of trying to figure out who my real friends were. I craved stories that could inject that sort of reality with hope, not stories about people who can afford the luxury to walk away from their lives for a year, just to travel, and think.

When true stories become the means of escape

Unfortunately, this type of memoir—hardship couched in privilege—seems to be a sub-genre. I’ve been doing some research, and again and again I run across books that sound appealing—meaningful stories of difficulty turned into new understanding and life—until I dig a little deeper. One woman’s parents financially supported her and her children in Manhattan after the divorce; another woman spent a restorative month in Italy (because apparently nothing says “divorce” like the picture that accompanies this post). There are women who are independently wealthy, and women with successful television acting careers and women who own elaborate property, including a  “horse-and-ski-farm” (I can’t even really picture that).

The point of this post, though, isn’t to diss specific lifestyles or books (other than maybe Eat, Pray, Love, since I did name that one). If you have the ability to travel for a year to “find yourself,” by all means, go for it. I realize it might be easy to assume that I’m simply jealous (although I think it’s hard to be jealous of things you can’t even begin to imagine for yourself). I also realize that my own middle class “hardships” hardly look like hardships to single parents who can’t find work or afford even a small-but-decent rental. There’s always going to be someone who has it easier and someone who has it harder.

What I’m really wondering is what is going on with the publishing world, in terms of memoir? Or, more specifically, what is going on with the market/audience? Because apparently books of hardship-cloaked-in-privilege sell. So why do we want to lose ourselves in true stories that are really no more than fantasy? I read memoirs to feel less alone, and to find strength and hope, not to walk away thinking “Oh, apparently hope is just for the privileged.”

My follow-up tweet to the one I started the post with was this:

re: memoirs, they should offer hope to average people–to everyone!–not just the privileged. why promote fantasy lives most can’t have?

What do you think? Why do you read memoir? And why are so many people are drawn to real-life-fantasy stories?

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  • http://www.ordinarymer.com Meredith

    I think I tend to stay away from most memoirs precisely because I don’t feel I can relate to them. And I can only speak for myself, but most of the time, the reason I choose to read anything – be it memoir, real-life fantasy, fictional fantasy or other – is to escape. Logically, I know I can never truly escape life’s problems or hardships, but reading gives me a few hours to lose myself in someone else’s world. It lets me put aside what’s bothering me and imagine a completely different world, life or set of circumstances.

    And I think there’s a benefit to that. Some people might prefer to go for a run or cook or listen to music. We all have our own way of “escaping” and I think a lot of these memoirs you mention are simply other ways to letting readers put down their own worries for just a little while.

  • http://reconcilingviewpoints.wordpress.com/ dan mcm

    Well, I don’t read memoirs in general. In fact, I clicked on your link because I thought you were going to take a “hardship vs. priviledge” tact and apply it to the occupy movement…. BUT, once I got here, I really liked your post…..

    I think one aspect of why there are so many “hardship” books where you discover that the person is really priviledged is the whole question of having “means”. A divorced woman that can afford to take a year off and travel has the time and means to write a book. The mom that is struggling to make ends meet in a small apartment with her kids, not so much. Even if that mom could write a much better book and tell a story that a lot more people identify with, she doesn’t the time and money to devote herself to doing a book.

    As far as why people like the real-life/fantasy, it’s a form of escapism. If my life isn’t all it cracked up to be, I can read about someone who’s life did turn out. Does anybody actually live “The Notebook”? No. But a lot of people wish they did, and they find it easier to escape into a book than to actually work through the hard parts of their marriage…..

  • http://jenniferluitwieler.com Jennifer

    It’s as if we’re being offered an alternative lifestyle, like gazing at the photos in a catalog of high priced luxuries and pretending we could so totally make that happen. I mean, when I look at Oprah, I see a woman who initially kicked some booty. And that’s enough of a good story for me, but when she tells me what to do to lose weight or what is the best lotion, I just want to say, “Shut it, lady. I’ve having popcorn for dinner on the sofa after the kids go to bed because that’s all I feel like I can manage today.”

    I don’t know if it’s our culture’s fascination with wealth or do it by the bootstraps ideology, but I can tell you this: Any struggle I’ve ever had was not endured by me alone, but by my loved ones. And going to Italy (while I’m sure it’s lovely) would not in itself have solved the problem. I could not read Gilbert’s book and I sure as hell didn’t watch the move.

    You go on girl.

  • http://takingtheyoke.blogspot.com Ray Hollenbach

    Well, I’m busted, because one of my favorite movies is Under the Tuscan Sun which, I think fits rather well into this category. I love it because it’s filled with hope, but even as I watch it I know it’s the Hollywood version of hope.

    Then there’s the other cinematic extreme, where we encounter the working-class Mom heroically holding life together with wit and down-home charm. These movies are nearly always set in the south, because apparently people from Indiana or Oregon have no such problems.

    This leads me to real life, where I’ve seen your story enacted again and again before my eyes: the friend who cried in my living room because who would desire a single mother of four? She discovered three years later that her four daughters helped her find the right partner, a decent man with a father’s heart ready-made. Or the nearly un-functioning, shy, battered single mother who still fights day-to-day to pay the bills in between divorce-court dates because her ex refuses to let her and her daughter live in peace. Or yet another re-married woman who is forced to see the slow-motion destruction of her teenagers as they cope with a father who spews judgment on them from the other side of town.

    In each of these cases, simple trips to the grocery store, or an uninterrupted family meal were the victories that made life bearable for the week. Who will write their stories? Who will celebrate their lives? Can the gatekeepers of publishing or cinema find value in their stories?

  • Kirstin

    Amen, sister. I too have been baffled about the popularity of that memoir. But then, I go on reading the flaky lifestyle sections of the NY Times, even though they routinely discuss “problems” that are equally remote from me. (Should you take the nanny on vacation with you, or not? Are there architects and high-end contractors willing to take on the project of building a treehouse? AAAARRRRGGHHH!)

    I wonder if the high-end memoirs are somehow related to the trend in fiction (particularly young adult fiction) that depicts extreme hardship. Do we, as a reading public, somehow shy away from reading material that takes place squarely where we live? Do we prefer fantasizing about extremes to grappling with memoirs or novels that might challenge us to rethink our own decisions?

  • http://www.emergingmummy.com Sarah@EmergingMummy

    Oh, girl. You and me BOTH. I did a big rant about that book a while ago (http://www.emergingmummy.com/2010/08/in-which-were-eating-and-praying-and.html) and it was pretty much the same thing. Boom. Loved this.

  • http://confessionsofabipolarfaerie.typepad.com/blog/ Roxanne

    Yes, Amen. I wonder what the big deal is about this book. I tried reading that book and hated it. I’m staying as far away as possible from the movie.

  • http://suzysammons.com suzy

    Bravo! We can form a new club! I didn’t have the luxury of a sabbatical at the time of my divorce because I was the breadwinner being taken to the cleaners; different still! But I carefully admit to being in the process of writing a memoir that I hope inspires and entertains. Ian Cron’s new memoir is amazing (to me). Maybe it all boils down to how we can relate, eh? Or be inspired… otherwise, it becomes blah blah blah, like EPL did for me. Thanks Kristin… I’m looking forward to connecting.

  • http://sarahaskins.com Sarah@ From Tolstoy to Tinkerbell

    I enjoyed Eat Pray Love because it felt like my fantasy world sans messy divorce, poor relationship choices, etc. For me, it read like fiction. But the memoirs that stick with me are usually the ones about the messy life. I adore Anne Lamott because she admits her major flaws and is just plain funny. Maybe, we like the luxurious memoir because we secretly desire to be discontent with our mundaneness. We want to feel justified in walking away from problems, and these memoirs allows us an out–someone else walked away, so can I. That does bother me.

  • http://WritingIsMyDrink.com Theo Pauline Nestor

    A big yes! You know I agree. Sometimes I feel like my book would’ve sold more copies if I’d been able to flee the country after divorce instead of stay put with my two kids.

    The Clash line that often runs through my head is “I don’t want to hear about what the rich are doing.” But do so many want to hear just that?

    Ray H: You’re a good friend!

    Keep writing the news, Kristin. I like your work.
    (author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed)

  • http://www.leighkramer.com HopefulLeigh

    This must be why Eat Pray Love didn’t sit well with me. It just seemed so self-indulgent, not realistic for the average person. But it seems that the average, every day heroes aren’t interesting “enough” to get book or movie deals. That’s why the fantasy still sells and why it appeals to those of us who can’t afford to traipse through Europe for a year. Though, I realize, in some ways I’m living a privileged life now. I’ve worked part-time or less the last few months and written the rest of my time, supplementing my income with my hard-earned savings. This time is coming to an end and then I’m back to full-time work. I realize not everyone would make the choices I made- or would be in the position to make them in the first place. I’m very grateful for this opportunity…but I don’t plan on writing a memoir about it.

  • http://www.kristenotte.com Kristen Sloan

    I’ve noticed that I don’t read many memoirs which I think stems from why I read. I read to learn or gain new insight or to escape in a good story. Usually, my nonfiction reads fit the first reason and fiction the second. But, most of the memoirs I read don’t seem to do either. I did read Eat Pray Love but didn’t get much out it. Maybe it’s for your reasoning that the popular memoirs are hardship meets privilege and that doesn’t attract me. Huh. Thanks for the thought provoking post!

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T. (@kt_writes)

    Meredith, that’s interesting. I wonder if you found the right memoir topic you would change your mind. Maybe in my case, I get this false sense that I’ll be able to relate to divorce memoirs, even though I realize each experience is different. But I completely get what you’re saying about the value of escape. Reading seems like a healthy and reasonable way to achieve those benefits (and I absolutely let myself do that with fiction).

    dan, I actually thought about the occupy movement, and the whole 99 percent (the rest of us), but I worried the post would get too complicated if I tried to work that in. Anyway, you make a great point about needing resources (time, money, energy) to write a book in the first place. Think of all the really amazing stories out there that will go untold simply because life itself takes so much out of the protagonist…

    Jennifer, the shopping analogy–the covering and dreaming–is a great one. There are at least two possible ways to look at it: either you think you can/should have that thing/life too (a sense of entitlement), or you realize you can never have it, and therefore will never be happy/beautiful/desired. Either way, it’s self-destructive.

    Ray, oh, the Hollywood version of hope. It’s so appealing yet so hopeless, isn’t it? You ask exactly the right questions about the real-life stories you encounter: “Who will write their stories? Who will celebrate their lives?” That’s what I ultimately want–I want their stories, their lives, to be valued.

    Kirstin, the NYT lifestyle reference made me laugh. There are so many lives being lived that I can’t begin to comprehend (on both ends of the spectrum). And you completely nailed it, I think, with your questions at the end of your comment. Unless you’ve looked enough hardships straight in the eye, I do think people shy away from difficult stories that aren’t softened with enough Hollywood-style glow.

  • http://www.left2devices.blogspot.com Matt

    I think that dan mcm makes some good points about why we don’t see more true-to-life “hardship” memoirs, and that is because those who are truly struggling don’t have (or make) the time to sit down and write prose. The exceptions to this, of course, being J.K. Rowling (who was an impoverished single mother wanting a better life for her and her family), and P.D. James, who was raising her kids while her husband slipped further and further into WWII-related psychosis.

    There’s also the aspect of the ‘traditional’ story arc, even in a work of non-fiction. Often times, true “hardship” tales can be a flatline of bleakness. Is that what most people want to read? I suppose “Precious” was an exception to that rule.

    I dunno. You’re spot on with this post, Kristin, it’s just I think the publishers/filmmakers give the majority of the public what it wants. :-/

  • http://www.badmamagenny.com Genevieve

    Why do people watch the Kardashians? Because luxury sells.

    I can’t stand the Kardashians, and every time I hear how popular it is or how many viewing records it’s broken I feel like puking on all the people I have to share a culture with. But there it is. People love to hear about the things they can’t have.

    Don’t even get me started on “Twilight.”

  • Janet

    I listened to the book rather than read it; I got the audiobook, narrated by Elizabeth Gilbert. It was incredibly inexpensive, for about 8 CDs.

    I think a person can have a very different experience with the book when you listen to it rather than read it. Sarah wrote above that she loves Anne Lamott, and I also listened to her books, narrated by Anne. There’s so much that comes through when the words that were written by an author are read by that same author. You pick up more vulnerability, I think – more feeling in general.

    I thought Elizabeth Gilbert displayed a lot of personal shortcomings and flaws in her book. “Eat, Pray, Love”. OK, she did have the luxury of walking away from a privileged lifestyle, but at least she walked away from it and was honest with herself, rather than staying with a man she didn’t love and having a child she didn’t want.

    I think I read memoirs like Elizabeth’s and books like those by Anne Lamott because I’m fascinated by the “quirkiness” of people (and I am all too aware of my own “quirks”) and I am curious as to how they navigate through life with these challenges. And Anne Lamott must be pretty well-off herself, since her books do so well – but people seem to have more affection for her than for Elizabeth.

    I do worry about the fact that I’m involuntarily unemployed, and wonder what I would do if my husband lost his job (he’s 64 years old…) – we live paycheck to paycheck – I have an adult son, but he’s also unemployed – so I am not exactly in Elizabeth or Anne’s situation.

  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Sarah, yes! You nailed it (as usual).

    Roxanne, ultimately, people can make the choices they need to make, and if they want to write about it and someone wants to publish it, fine. I just wonder what the trends say about our culture…

    suzy, each story is so unique, isn’t it? Maybe I expect too much from memoirs, but I do love that feeling of reading something true I can really relate to, learning from that person and feeling less alone. And I, too, have a book proposal in the works—I’m sure my experience will fall flat for many readers (which is why I was hesitant to share my criticisms). Anyway, about that club… :)

    Sarah, I feel the same way about Anne Lamott. With her memoir writing, it sort of goes beyond whether I can relate to the details and becomes more about relating to the big, messy, human picture. We’re all a wreck, we all need help and redemption.

    Theo, your book is a favorite of mine (I hope my readers check it out!). If grocery store tabloids and shows like Lives of the Rich and Famous are any indication, clearly many people DO want to hear about what the rich are up to. I, personally, just don’t get it.

    HopefulLeigh, yeah, “self-indulgent” doesn’t sit well with me—especially when I sense it in a memoir. It’s hard, though, to live an authentic life, and even harder to write about it with honesty and truth. Your own experience is a great example of how, ultimately, we all make choices. I tend to choose less money and more freedom when given the choice (the opportunity to do freelance work, to not move in with my parents when I was a single mom, etc.). I guess the important thing is to own our choices and not criticize/envy the choices of others (I say that fully realizing that I sound critical of Gilbert here…).

    Kristen, you’re absolutely right—memoir does fall somewhere between fiction and more informational non-fiction, which can make it difficult to know how to relate to it. In the very best cases, memoir entertains, teaches (in a less self-help, preachy way), and inspires/gives hope. Now I’m inspired to put together a list of memoirs that have done just that!

  • http://hypewriter.blogspot.com Leah D.

    What a great post! In fact, I’ve been blogging through the book, “Eat, Pray, Love”! Ha! But, I am nearing the end and I have come up dry and not able to figure out why. Today, I referenced this post. Thank you for helping me understand why I was feeling so un-friendly toward the end of this memoir! I have caught myself thinking all along, “Must be nice to travel all year and figure out who you are!” So, anyway, here’s my post about your post. :)


  • http://www.halfwaytonormal.com Kristin T.

    Matt, that sure makes sense to me. When I was in the heart of my single mothering experience, I didn’t have a spare ounce of energy to do that kind of writing. It wasn’t until my life had settled down some (five years after my divorce) that I could even think of starting my blog let alone writing a book! And you’re right about this, too: “…true “hardship” tales can be a flatline of bleakness.” When I was in the middle of my “bleak time,” I didn’t have the heart to write about it—It was only after I could begin to see the redemptive turn that I felt I had a story to share.

    Genevieve, once again, you win the making-me-laugh prize. :) It’s a tough thing to confront—this common desire for luxury and lives we can’t have—because if you truly don’t have that desire and want to confront it, you only sound self-righteous (or people think you’re lying).

    Janet, that’s a really interesting point about audio version of memoirs—the vulnerability is there, the evidence of a REAL person. I also agree with why you enjoy memoirs—for glimpses of the quirkiness of people. It’s so fascinating! One comment re: Anne Lamott: She might be doing well financially, etc., now, but she faced the darkest, most difficult times of her life head-on, without luxuries (beyond important things like friendship). Operating Instructions, her memoir about motherhood (in her case single motherhood) clearly paints that picture. You should read it if you haven’t!

    Leah, how funny that you’ve been blogging through EPL! I’ll definitely check out your post. Your comment made me realize something. I have been saying all along that people obviously can (and should) face their problems in whatever way seems best to them, with whatever means are available. I have to admit, though, I think truly dealing with problems (at least most types of problems) involves being present in them and facing them—going *through* them, not escaping them.

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  • http://themoderngal.com The Modern Gal

    Well, I play a slight devil’s advocate here by wondering if there aren’t memoirs about divorce experiences more similar to yours because no one is pitching them? It almost seems like a Catch-22. Your experience would have offered you little opportunity and time to write such a memoir, and yet I’m sure there’s a market for it.

    I actually love memoirs, because I think we can learn something from everyone, even when our experiences aren’t completely similar. Sure, I’m mostly drawn to travelogues, because I love to travel, or women who have a similar voice to my own. I loved most of Eat, Pray, Love because I loved Elizabeth Gilbert’s voice and determination to survive once she hit rock bottom — and I certainly recognized her rock bottom as something similar to what I once felt, and wonder if you might see some similarities between how she felt going through the throes of her divorce and what you felt. Yes, the traveling is unrealistic for most, but I at least enjoyed reading about the places she visited and people she met and think some of her self-discovery could have been done anywhere, and therefore makes it relatable (although I acknowledge that reading it having gone through a divorce of my own might alter my view of it — I can’t place myself in your shoes in this case).