Ethnographers of the Self, Unite
On finding validation in Annie Ernaux's "Simple Passion" and her winning the Nobel Prize in literature.
I’ll confess I’d never heard of 82-year-old French author Annie Ernaux before it was announced last year that she’d won the Nobel Prize in literature, an honor she received “for the courage and clinical acuity with which she uncovers the roots, estrangements and collective restraints of personal memory.”
In an interview I read recently, Ernaux referred to herself as an “ethnographer of myself,” and this feels apt.
I’ll also confess that since then, I’ve read just one of her books, Simple Passion, a slim, 60-page volume with a fair amount of blank space on many of its pages, the English translation of which (by Tanya Leslie) is published by small indie house Seven Stories Press. That’s hardly enough of her work for me to have read in order to reasonably comment on her, broadly, as a writer. I have others of her titles on order, though, and while I patiently wait for them to arrive, I want to just share some thoughts sparked by Simple Passion and Ernaux’s win.
I really enjoyed Simple Passion. It’s labeled autofiction, a genre whose defining characteristics and distinctions from memoir I might never fully understand, no matter how many people explain them to me. The book is about an affair Ernaux had many years ago with a married “foreigner,” with whom she has trysts when he travels to Paris. Although the subject is passion, Ernaux writes of her obsession with her infrequently available lover in clear-eyed, sometimes almost clinical prose.
Even more than I enjoyed the book, I felt validated by it and Ernaux’s Nobel Prize—validated in my tastes as a reader, and my own tendencies as a writer.
While at some points it’s clear she’s writing from a place of enthrall, mostly she is studying that enthrallment. There’s often a remove between Ernaux and the subject she is documenting: herself, a person subsumed by passion and longing. In an interview I read recently, Ernaux referred to herself as an “ethnographer of myself,” and this feels apt.
Even more than I enjoyed the book, I felt validated by it and Ernaux’s Nobel Prize—validated in my tastes as a reader, and my own tendencies as a writer. I’ll just say it straight up: I like to read and write personal narratives that are singularly focused, that don’t waste too much time making big references to other works, which often feels pretentious to me, or to studies, or to “wisdom” from anywhere else. I prefer stories that find their greater resonance solely in the specificity of the writer’s emotional experience.
In a meta moment in the book, Ernaux notes that in part, she is writing in pursuit of that resonance—of a sense of communion with others like her:
“Sometimes I wonder if the purpose of my writing is to find out whether other people have done or felt the same things, or if not, for them to consider experiencing such things as normal.”
This has always been a strong factor in why I write—possibly the strongest.
I like to read and write personal narratives that are singularly focused, that don’t waste too much time making big references to other works, which often feels pretentious to me, or to studies, or to “wisdom” from anywhere else.
The timing of this validation was fortuitous. I’d been disheartened by some recent conversations I’d had with people in publishing. There’s a lot discouragement right now against memoir and memoirs-in-essays. I mean, there’s always discouragement against these kinds of books, but right now, it feels even more forbidding.
One agent I know told me about getting a client to shift away from memoir to a reported nonfiction book, one related to the subject of the memoir she’d been trying to sell, unsuccessfully, for years. The switch paid off; client got a “good deal” in Publisher’s Marketplace parlance, and is now busy interviewing other people like herself so that she can report on her particular experience as a broader phenomenon.
Great for that client! But you know what? I don’t want to read that book. I want to read the memoir version. I mean, I don’t know if I want to read that exact memoir, from that particular author. But if I’m being offered the reported version where the author studies others, or the one that is about just the author’s experience in exquisite emotional detail, an ethnography of the self, I’m going to lean toward the latter. That’s who I am as a reader and writer.
I prefer stories that find their greater resonance solely in the specificity of the writer’s emotional experience.
(Or maybe I’d prefer an essay anthology version, in which those other voices are also singularly focused on their own stories. I do love a good personal essay anthology—another category I’m told publishing houses are shunning even more than usual. Yes, they say this to bestselling anthologists, too.)
Maybe I’m in the minority. Maybe (definitely) people in publishing know more about commerce than I do, and have good reasons for favoring that kind of narrative nonfiction over memoir. But I’m suspicious of it. It feels like there’s cowardice and cynicism behind it, and maybe some misogyny? Like, Sure, women, you can tell your stories, but we’re going to make you jump through more hoops to do it, and we’re going to make it more SERIOUS and more RESPECTABLE than your little memoirs. Maybe it’s just in my head.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what it would take for me to have real commercial success as a memoirist, to get a major deal for my next book instead of the tiny deal I got from a small press for And You May Find Yourself… And at least right now, the thought of that kind of uphill battle in a shrinking field filled with so much discouragement is repellent to me. Then again, the idea of moving away from the kind of writing I love to do in the pursuit of commercial success feels equally repellent.
It’s crossed my mind more than once that maybe I’m just naturally suited toward publishing the kind of books I prefer to write (and read) with tiny presses, for not much money. No having to reinvent and commercialize myself for a larger audience, no needing to prove that I can bring in enough of an advance to make money for other people in the publishing food chain. Maybe it’s enough for me to write and publish small, quiet books for a smaller audience—for the particular kind of readers who have responded well to my debut memoir.
Maybe it’s enough for me to write and publish small, quiet books for a smaller audience—for the particular kind of readers who have responded well to my debut memoir.
Obviously it would not suck to have a “good deal,” but maybe I can live with continuing to make the lion’s share of my living doing the other work I do, while writing the books I’m, well, passionate about, on the side.
That would require better balancing of the editing and teaching I do with time for my own writing. Today I took the first step in that direction, pausing submissions for Oldster Magazine and the Memoir Monday “First Person Singular” series. (I’ll switch to limited submission periods, which I’ll announce in each newsletter.) Recently there has been such a crush of submissions that I couldn’t sleep at night, worrying about people being angry at me for not responding quickly enough, or for passing on their work. It’s been a factor (one of many) in my fraught emotional state, lately. I’ve been walking around kind of leaking, crying at the drop of a hat. I needed to take some of the pressure off of myself.
And I needed to give my mind some space for creating again—for writing. I’ve still got a notebook full of essay ideas from my Artist Date in November. I can’t wait to get to the place where I’m ready to write the first one of them.
In other news…
At Memoir Monday, for paid subscribers, I had a chat with Chloe Caldwell about acting as her own agent. Check it out…
My memoir turned to fiction (autofiction?) when I realized no one in my family is capable of telling the truth (for myriad reasons ranging from delusions, to denial, to mental illness, to simple misunderstandings, etc), and when I realized it would’ve been largely fiction even if I hadn’t made it so on purpose. Still working on it.
I’m glad you wrote about arnoux — I had been meaning to read that book, myself! Thanks for the endorsement!
I took a workshop a couple of years ago just after I'd finished my MFA and was looking to turn my memoir in visual essays into a book proposal, which an editor who had seen it encouraged me to do. The person who was teaching this workshop discouraged every single woman in there--and we were all women--from pursuing memoir and memoir-based projects in favor of reported nonfiction with a sprinkle of personal narrative. Because the only memoirs that sell, he insisted, were celebrity memoirs. It made me both angry and sad, and I dropped the class because I thought if I shared my work with that instructor, I might very well never make another thing again.
I am in some ways very lucky in that I am able to freelance in a well-paying industry and have the flexibility to spend time on my own work and to do some teaching. I am constantly having conversations with myself about publishing. What I want from it. And where I might fit into that ecosystem. I like to make weird hybrid stuff. Need to make it. I try not to ruminate on it too much, and make the work I need to make, and get it out there in ways that I can. I suspect if I ever do have anything published it will be with an indie.