It’s not often you hear someone refer to tales of incest, poverty, and pedophilia as a “listen-to-my-pain sweepstakes.” But Don Graham, a professor of English at the University of Texas and a past president of the Texas Institute of Letters, has issues with the new introduction to Mary Karr’s recently reissued book The Liars’ Club and the subgenre she helped launch.
texasmonthly.com: The first time you read Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, you said you “read it with considerable interest.” What did you like about it then?
Don Graham: What I liked about it the first time round was that it was a woman’s voice dealing with working-class people in East Texas, or SE Gulf Coast perhaps is better. I liked some of the atmospherics of the town “Leechfield” (whatever town it is), and I liked the father’s stories told at the Liars’ Club. I thought they were very funny and beautifully told. I still do. In fact, I included one such story in my anthology of Lone Star Literature: From the Red River to the Rio Grande (W. W. Norton, 2003).
texasmonthly.com: Now the book has been reissued with a new introduction. What has changed that makes the book, as you say in your column, “a pretty long slog”?
DG: On the first reading I found the book quite long, and then, as now, I grew tired of the perky voice. It’s just my opinion; I don’t like to listen to Katie Couric either.
texasmonthly.com: Why do you think people write confessional memoirs?
DG: I think they write them to get even, make money, and perhaps undergo some authentic therapeutic/cathartic experience.
texasmonthly.com: What do you dislike the most about this subgenre?
DG: I dislike the emphasis on childhood and the woes thereof. Now I know that many people have unhappy childhoods, but I much prefer to read biographies and autobiographies of adults who have accomplished something (whether good or bad) in their lives. I dislike reading about passive suffering unless it’s a saint’s life.
texasmonthly.com: The books you listed in this subgenre deal with some heavy stuff: incest, pedophiles, poverty. Since these problems exist in society, don’t these books act as a vehicle to bring awareness? Or are you saying that the authors are simply complaining and capitalizing on their experience?
DG: I think that there’s plenty of TV and radio coverage of the “heavy stuff”—incest, pedophiles, poverty, etc.—so that any American who is uninformed about such problems is brain-dead. I don’t think these books are meant to “bring awareness.” I do think that many of the authors are in fact “complaining and capitalizing on their experience.” I don’t deny their sufferings are real; after all, we live in an age of therapy unprecedented in history, and maybe much of it is for the good. I do think that Tony Soprano [James Gandolfini] might benefit from some breakthrough moments in his ongoing sessions with Jennifer Melfi [Lorraine Bracco]; I do.
texasmonthly.com: You said that one of your biggest qualms with confessional memoirs, and specifically Karr’s book, was simply this: “it’s kiddie porn.” What did you mean?
DG: Kiddie porn: Well, I think a certain kind of reader gets a kick out of reading the two detailed accounts of sexual assault in Karr’s book. And I can imagine some pedophile somewhere getting another kick out of reading the same material.
texasmonthly.com: What genre of literature do you prefer to read?
DG: I like British fiction, biography, and autobiography—also great poetry. Right now I am reading bios of Stalin and Anne Bradstreet (simultaneously), and I have just finished Ron Hansen’s Hitler’s Niece. I am also rereading Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian (a quotation from which, incidentally, appears as an epigraph in one of the sections of The Liars’ Club).
texasmonthly.com: Have you ever met Mary Karr in person? If so, what is she like?
DG: I met Mary Karr in Houston the year she won the Carr P. Collins prize from the Texas Institute of Letters, just for a second, to congratulate her. She seemed very personable. I’m sure I would like her in person. My review is not about Mary Karr; it’s about her book and what I think of it.
texasmonthly.com: What do you think of “creative nonfiction”? Is it valid to get creative with facts?
DG: I think that creative nonfiction is an excuse for not having to fact-check nonfiction. I think the term is gimmicky. I think the term is something of a crock. As for getting creative with the facts, better ask Jayson Blair, Dan Rather, and a host of other creative nonfiction mavens on that question.