Stuff I’ve Been Reading
A monthly column
by Nick Hornby
- The Banquet Years: The Origins of the Avant-Garde in France, 1885 to World War I—Roger Shattuck
- Passing—Nella Larsen
- Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939–1941—Lynne Olson
- How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like—Paul Bloom
- A Natural Woman—Carole King
- Bedsit Disco Queen—Tracey Thorn
- Kind of Blue: The Making of the Miles Davis Masterpiece—Ashley Kahn
- The Garrick Year—Margaret Drabble
- The Summer of Naked Swim Parties—Jessica Anya Blau
Carole King and Tracey Thorn are both singer-songwriters. They have never done anything else for a living, because they haven’t needed to: they were both teenagers when their careers in music began to take off. They are both mothers, and they have both had children with the cowriters of some of their most famous songs. They have both been politically active. And yet it seems to me that Carole King has written an autobiography, whereas Tracey Thorn has written a memoir. Can that be right? Is this even a useful distinction to make?
The most helpful attempt to distinguish between the two that I have come across appeared in the Guardian ten years ago, and was written by the wise and thoughtful British writer Ian Jack, the former editor of Granta. (Jack is Scottish, so he probably hates being called British. There is a lot of artfully disguised malice in this column.) “An autobiography is usually a record of accomplishment,” Jack argued. “All kinds of people, more or less famous, can write them or be helped to write them: footballers, politicians, newsreaders. Deeds, fame and an interesting life are not necessary ingredients of the memoir.” My first book, then, is a textbook definition of a memoir: nobody had ever heard of me, and I had achieved nothing, when I decided to write it. I now see that it should be required reading for every writing course, although I suppose you could argue that it would be enough if the teacher merely waved it around in front of the students. “Look at this idiot! He’d done bugger all, and he wrote a book about himself! Memoir!”
The memoir’s ambition, Jack continues, “is to be interesting in itself, as a novel might be”—oh dear—“about intimate, personal experience. It often aspires to be thought of as ‘literary,’ and for that reason borrows many of literature’s tricks—the tricks of the novel, of fiction—because it wants to do more than record the past; it wants to re-create it. If a memoir is to succeed on those terms, on the grounds that all lives are interesting if well-enough realised, the writing has to be good.”
In other words, the writer of an autobiography is writing for fans, whereas the writer of a memoir has to create them. Tracey Thorn has fans, thousands of them, through her band Everything But the Girl, but one of the themes of her book is the essential oddness of this condition, and one of its tones is an attractive, occasionally pained quizzicality. She clearly doesn’t feel famous enough to be writing an autobiography, so what she does instead is create a rich and interesting plot out of personal experience. So there’s this girl, and she loves her music, and she starts to make it, but she wants other things, too: a university education, children, a relationship, a life that doesn’t turn her into some kind of monster… Underpinning the book is the idea that this girl is really not unlike you and me, except this weird stuff happens to her: she and her boyfriend start selling out large concert halls, and this house DJ remixes one of their songs and it sells millions of copies around the world, and George Michael winds down his car window and shouts at her when she’s standing at the school gates waiting to pick up her kid.
This last story is entirely indicative of the book’s sensibility, and of Thorn’s self-awareness. A pop-star auto-biographer might not have noticed anything in the George Michael moment, because there’s nothing remarkable about another member of the Famous Club saying hello; Thorn, however, clearly shriveled up inside a little, as her struggle to offer her family a life untainted by celebrity is momentarily blocked. It’s a very winning book, not least because Thorn, who recorded the B-side of an Everything But the Girl single on the day she sat her seventeenth-century literature paper, can write, too. And the survival of her relationship with Ben Watt, the other half of EBTG, through college, pop-stardom, parenthood, and life-threatening illness, is an extraordinary achievement worth a book to itself.
We hope you enjoy this excerpt.
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