This past week, I read two pieces that made me think. One was a series of columns by Cat Marnell (apparently I was supposed to know who this drugged out socialite was before reading them—I didn’t) in Vice Magazine. The other was the book Magical Thinking, a collection of personal essays by New York Times bestselling author Augusten Burroughs. This got me thinking back over other memoir style writing I’ve read in the past and that got me thinking of how people seem to absolutely love when lousy people write about their lives.
First, Cat Marnell.
In her series of columns for Vice Magazine, this 97-pound pill-popper (no, really, I refuse to look up why I’m supposed to care about her) details her chaotic life of (you guessed it) pill popping and name dropping. If you actually force yourself through one of these columns, you’ll find a laundry list of celebrity names, a litany of prescription drugs names, and very little that resembles good writing. This charming column details a lovely day spewing amphetamine venom at an art gallery, then screwing someone she takes great pains to mention several times is married. It bothers me that this sort of lifeless garbage gets published in the first place, but what was even more disturbing was the comments at the bottom of the article.
Man she can write. She uses honesty like no one else. She’s unapologetic. Not enough writers are either. Damn good stuff. Keep it coming.
Excuse me while I vomit. Is this a freshman writing class where Cat Marnell’s parents are paying $60,000 a year to have people tell her she’s a wonderful snowflake? Jesus.
So I could probably ignore that incident. But then I was looking for some light summer reading, and I picked up an Augusten Burroughs’ memoir from my bookshelf where it had been sitting for some time. And sections like this one, post discussion with a new lover about what kinds of disabilities they could “tolerate” in lovers, jumped out at me:
“You remember I told you about my Australian friend, Hateful Harold?…Well, he got drunk one night and went to that awful Ty’s bar on Christopher Street?…So he was depressed and at this pit of a bar, and he was drunk and horny. And all of a sudden, some guy came up to him, and they started talking. But Hateful Harold wasn’t in a talkative mood, so he suggested they just hop on the subway and go back to his Jersey City apartment. So that’s what they did. Flash forward to the next morning, when Hateful Harold wakes up, completely hung over and next to a body. The guy’s back is to him, and he can barely remember even going out the night before, let alone picking somebody up. So gently he turns the guy over, and–surprise–the guy had Down’s syndrome.”
At this point, he and his lover “yelp with glee.”
And this, about the possibility of him and his lover adopting a child:
Neither of us wants to accept the special challenges presented by a severely handicapped Romanian child or a baby who was born addicted to crack and has only half a head.
As Dennis says, “That’s what they give us. The day-old-bread kids, the dented-can kids.”
And then there’s the essay about when he thought he wanted to transition gender, but then decided to get a puppy, instead.
Did I mention that this guy has written several best selling novels? And it’s not just him that people are crazy for. Prozac Nation was the work of a navel-gazing horror show (if you don’t believe me, read author Elizabeth Wurtzel’s article on David Foster Wallace’s suicide, which is about 99% about herself) that sold millions of copies and was made into a film. I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell, a collection of pure misogynistic shit was a New York Times Bestseller and also had a movie made from it. The message is clear—if you’re going to write about yourself, be an awful, awful jerk.
So what is it about these awful people that makes readers adore their work? Is there a fascination with people who behave in terrible ways? Do people wish they could be like them, if only they were less inhibited? Is it a pleasure to have these people amuse us safely from a printed page instead of in our lives? Or is it, as the person who commented on the Marnell column said, that these works come across as more “honest” than others?
Okay, none of us are saints. And all of us have done things we aren’t proud of. But saying awful things over and over, being a jerk to people repeatedly, thinking your narrow vision is the most important thing in the world—that doesn’t make you honest. If just kind of makes you a jerk. And it makes me, personally, not want to read you. Not when there’s stuff out there to be read like the graphic memoir Fun Home , written by the brilliant, honest, funny Alison Bechdel, or even books like Out of the Shadow, which took on the topic of mental illness long before Elizabeth Wurtzel did, and before it was something people even talked about.
I don’t really like wasting my time on awful people. And I’m not amused by them. And while I’ll read almost anything, I’m pretty sure I won’t be wasting any more time reading Wurtzel or Marnell or Burroughs. There’s too much that’s strong and meaningful and valuable to waste time on the musings of people I wouldn’t so much as look at twice if I passed them in the street.
But, seriously, who the hell is this Cat Marnell woman?