by Morgan on April 4, 2011
So in accordance with my usual vacation protocol, I picked up the April issue of ELLE for last week’s desert jaunt. In a section called “The ELLE’s Letters Readers’ Prize” (what?) “ELLE readers vote for their favorite book among three new releases that we love.” I’ll assume that the “we” refers to ELLE editors.
This month, they chose three memoirs to face off:
Two Kisses for Maddy, Matthew Logelin
“A laid-back dude and his high-school sweetheart — a hard-charging corporate type
– marry and have a baby. The wife dies one day after the birth.”
Signs of Life, Natalie Taylor
“A 24-year-old English teacher is five months pregnant when her husband dies in a freak accident.”
The Long Goodbye, Meghan O’Rourke
“This memoir and meditation on the the lingering and untimely death of the author’s mother is the most poetic, and most profound, of this month’s books.”
One of my more animated internal battles regarding literature has to do with my allegiance to reading vs. my distain for bad writing. I’ll find myself judging someone for reading a particular novel or author that I deem poor, only to remind myself how I actually feel: if they’re reading, leave them alone. They’re fighting the good fight.
And so I’ll say that I applaud ELLE for having this section in the magazine, and for allowing their readers to weigh in on newly published books. However, I do resent the editors’ apparent opinion of their readers, and the horrifying lack of breadth displayed in their selections. This month was memoirs, yes? I can name six memoirs being released this month that are far less self-indulgant, and far more interesting in terms of subject, than these ones.
What is this genre?! I hate calling it Memoir proper, though it’s literally devouring that section of the bookstore. What do these twee, annoying stories of people overcoming extremely normal, entirely banal and universal challenges (the death of a lover, the death of a mother, the death of a dog, the raising of children) offer us, as readers?
Just when the mental illness memoir threatened to annihilate us with triteness, along comes the ELLE brand. I’ll have to agree with Laura Miller here and say that most of these books probably shouldn’t have been written, and certainly shouldn’t have been published. There are too many crappy books, and not enough readers, period.
I could understand humoring one of these books if the writing was exceptional (given that the stories certainly are not), though I sincerely doubt that that’s the case with any of ELLE’s picks. (O’Rourke is an excellent critic, and so I imagine hers might be the only one of the bunch that I could stomach, though I still have zero interest in another story of a daughter reconciling with being a daughter in the face of her mother’s death. Just fucking kill me.)
So in the absence of deft, vivid prose (and if anyone wants to challenge me by claiming that any of these three titles contain as much, I’ll gladly read it to prove you wrong), why do people like these books?
It’s easy to say, “Well, what do you expect? These are women who buy ELLE magazine.” But then you’d be dissing me. So the better response is: because these are the kinds of books ELLE magazine promotes, “reviews,” and encourages their readers to like. ELLE editors “love” these picks, and so women who use magazines like ELLE as a cultural touchstone (and there are many) go out and buy them.
And sure, maybe they even enjoy them. But I bet they’d also enjoy selections that are…just...better.