"The highest, as the lowest, form of criticism is a mode of autobiography." This Oscar Wilde quote, used to declare the rise of "criticism as memoir" in a recent article by Slate, gives us good reason to reflect.Â In general, writers are an opinionated bunch. If criticism can be considered memoir, how and where do we draw the genre-bending line?
For instance, even novelists infuse their work with varying forms of critique. Salman Rushdieâ€™s â€śThe Satanic Versesâ€ť speaks to the Koran and the Indian diaspora with the literary appeal of magical realism. Â Ayn Rand bludgeons readers with objectivist philosophy vis-Ă -vis John Galt and Howard Roark. Oscar Wildeâ€™s social commentary takes personal and irreverent pleasure in embracing Â dandyism. Â All of these works, even when presented as fiction, are rich in personal opinion. Does that make them memoir, too? We wonder. Any category with such a broad definition becomes increasingly meaningless. Whoâ€™s to blame for this dispute over classification? (And don't go accusing Melvil Dewey, inventor of the Dewey Decimal system.)
All pens point to Jonathan Lethem.
With the recent publication of Lethemâ€™s "Fear of Music," Slate and other reviewers have reignited the discussion of the novelist in the nonfiction realm of criticism. Lethemâ€™s book, published as part of the 33 1/3 seriesÂ dedicated to exploring music albums in depth, is ostensibly a batch of essays on The Talking Heads' 1979 release. But rewind and replay, and what's revealed is a personal and meditative meta-memoir; an introspection on childhood and inspiration that readily admits to the inextricable link between criticism and critic. He writes how the Lethem-as-child "arranged himself in a posture of such abject identification with 'Fear of Music' that he can no longer imagine who heâ€™d be had he never heard it. 'Fear of Music' wrote the boy, in other words."
Well, dammit, Lethem. There you go again being incredibly convincing.
We may question whether such a literary form is actually new, or simply a realization of the Oscar Wilde notion of criticism as autobiography, but it's nonetheless a rousing thought to chew on.Â Â Is â€śmemoirâ€ť the appropriate category? Probably not. Perhaps "biogument," if we may coin a term. Regardless, Art and Life have always coiled around one other in fits of imitation, neither revealing itself without the other.Â So the next time you find yourself barbing your writing with critical quips, sounding off about Miley Cyrus or Monet, be sure to remember the true subject of your microscope is you.
Also newly out by Jonathan Lethem is TheÂ EcstasyÂ of Influence,Â a collection of personal essays.Â