Blog #96: Greg Bellow, Children of Writers, and Patremoir Pressure

List of Matremoirs

List of Patremoirs

As so often, a misleading blog title. This blog is more about marketing than anything else. Of course, all my blogs are partly intended as a form of marketing, but in this blog I want to reflect a little on that marketing and the way in which it distorts me.

The trouble with my form of marketing is that it involves a form of self-promotion. I’m always jumping up and down, saying, “Look at me. Look at my clever idea. Look at my wonderful book. Look, look, look!” Without a peacock gene, that kind of self-display isn’t easy. In so far as I’ve been successful at it, I’ve managed because I use my book as a shield. I market for my cause, for the thing I believe in, and because of this I often feel like a Jehovah Witness standing on a corner. The book is my shield, yet even with it to hide behind I still feel self-conscious and unclean. Book aside, persistence and cussedness are what keep me going.

Back to the title of today’s blog. One of my marketing ploys is to feed the “patremoir” word into as many conversations and comment threads as possible. As I’ve said before, my plan is to keep using the patremoir word long enough, loud enough, and often enough until others start to use it too.

Two of my best placement sites are Amazon.ca / .com / .ca book reviews and Guardian book reviews. Whenever I see a matremoir or patremoir advertised or reviewed, I promptly rush in, brazenly trumpeting “patremoir” or “matremoir” in all directions. Sometimes I have a reasonable pretext—an honest insight or a relevant piece of information—but more often than not I have to contort and distort.

Now that I’ve done the sack cloth and ashes confession bit, here is my latest effort in that direction. It was written in response to a Guardian review of the latest patremoir to catch my attention, Greg Bellow’s Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir. Poor Gregg–without ever having looked at his book, I go along with Adam Mars-Jones’ criticism of his book. Greg and his book are nothing more than a pretext to me, and I don’t even try to explore why the children of writers should be so driven to write about their parents, even when most must know that they cannot come close to matching the writing skills of the parent.

Enough public display of squeamishness. Here is my latest Guardian comment. If you want more, just go to the Guardian site, type “patremoir” into “Your search terms” box, select “User comments” as the category, and hit search. You’ll see some of the ambulance chasing I indulge in.

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Greg Bellow is only the latest addition to a growing number of offspring who chose to write a memoir about growing up with a famous writer father. For the most part, as the list below indicates, such patremoirs are American. For the most part, too, such books are rather mediocre, of interest only to the most gluttonous fan, or for some scholar looking for a fresh biographical scrap. It would seem that writer fathers are hard to see dispassionately and clearly, and even harder to emulate.

The best of these patremoirs, perhaps not surprisingly, given the long tradition of writing in the family, is Alexander Waugh’s Fathers and Sons. Waugh is also helped by reserve, wit and by having a vast store of amusing anecdotes to draw upon. Of the other books on the list, Dan Fante’s and Alexandra Styron’s are also interesting and readable.

1) Ianthe Brautigan. You Can’t Catch Death: A Daughter’s Memoir (2001)
2) Susan Cheever. Home Before Dark: A Biographical Memoir of John Cheever (1985)
3) Dan Fante. Fante: A Family’s Legacy of Writing, Drinking, and Surviving (2011)
4) Jo Hammett. Dashiell Hammett: A Daughter Remembers (2001)
5) Erica Heller. Yossarian Slept Here: When Joseph Heller Was Dad, the Apthorp Was Home, and Life Was a Catch-22 (2011)
6) Gregory Hemingway. Papa: A Personal Memoir (1976)
7) Margaret Salinger. Dreamcatcher: A Memoir (2000)
8) Janna Malamud Smith. My Father is a Book (2006)
9) Kim Stafford. Early Morning: Remembering My Father, William Stafford (2003)
10) Alexandra Styron. Reading My Father (2012)
11) Alexander Waugh. Fathers and Sons: The Autobiography of a Family (2007)

Patremoir List Addendum

1) Bellow, Greg. Saul Bellow’s Heart: A Son’s Memoir (2013)
2) Broyard, Bliss. One Drop: My Father’s Hidden Life–A Story of Race and Family Secrets (2007) A big oops on my part–not sure how I left this off my original list, as it is one of the better books written by a writer’s child, and I prefer it to the Waugh.
3) Carver (Golding), Judy. The Children of Lovers: A Memoir of William Golding by His Daughter (2012)
4) Rieff, David. Swimming in a Sea of Death (2008) [Susan Sontag]
5) Leng, Flavia. Daphne du Maurier: A Daughter’s Memoir (1999)

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