Henry Miller (December 26, 1891 – June 7, 1980)
When I read one of the new formless, plotless, sexually candid, confessional I-did-this-bad-stuff-but-that-was-then-and-I’m different now/ sober now/ sorry now, pretentious while pretending to be just folks, supposedly true but obviously fallacious (or, more to the point, perhaps, delusional) yapping barking so-called memoirs, I blame Henry Miller.
He started this. The fake memoir business. Well, not started it, some ancient Greek or Roman did that and possibly some Cretan before them. But Miller continued it, popularized it, made it American and modern, and helped to inspire a new generation of poseurs and a profitable new niche in what’s left of the publishing business.
A number of writers who’ve been caught bullshitting in recent decades – trying to pass off their mediocre fictions as truth – did so at the urging of their agents or editors, who believe “truth” sells better. Which is no excuse for the writers, but does provide a nice barometer of where we’re at on the whole truth thing. We Americans seem to like veracity best when it’s mostly lies, as evidenced by everything from the topic at hand to infotainment to heavily scripted and alcohol-fueled “reality TV.”
“These novels will give way, by and by, to diaries or autobiographies – captivating books, if only a man knew how to choose among what he calls his experiences and how to record truth truly.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson
In Henry Miller’s defense, he labeled his fake memoirs “novels” and didn’t claim they were anything else. But he placed the Emerson quote at the front of his first Paris book, Tropic of Cancer (1934), and the implication was clear. He wanted us to believe Tropic of Cancer and his later books were diaries or autobiographies where he’d merely changed a few names – for legal reasons or out of politeness – but which still recorded truth truly. And Miller hoped, of course, that we’d find them – and him – captivating.
In his defense, too – and in contrast to his obsequious contemporary offspring – Henry Miller never apologized. In books or life. One reason, of course, might be because he never changed and, therefore, never saw the need. Another reason could be that, for a writer – and, especially, a self-confessed “confessional” one – he doesn’t appear to have felt things very deeply. Miller was famous for keeping his hat on during sex. He seems to have kept it on while writing as well.
Not that Henry Miller was an unlikable man. By all reports, once you got past the barking and the bullshit, he was charming and fun. He wasn’t dumb. And Miller could write. Bring the poetry at times, no question. I think of Miller’s books as the books Walt Whitman might have given us if he’d had a propensity toward the novel and been straight rather than gay, if old Walt had crashed in Paris garrets instead of rural hayricks, if he’d had a better-looking hat. But Whitman couldn’t write a novel.
I’m not convinced Henry Miller could write a novel either. A novel with a story, a theme, a purpose, a novel with interest generated by something other than energetic self-celebration and hyperbolic sex. Whenever I decide to give Miller another try, my reading begins with a happy burst of enthusiasm – man, how could I have neglected this guy, he’s great! – then it’s the fifth chapter and the pretend Henry is still picking nits from his memoir buddy’s hair, drinking cheap wine, trying to make this girl or that. I start skipping the sex, look ahead for the character I liked so much in chapter 2, but he or she never shows up again. Halfway through, I quit.
Miller wrote the books he wrote because they were the ones he could write. That’s okay, too. But they aren’t really novels and they’re not memoirs either. Not truthful ones, anyway. Just like ninety percent of the so-called memoirs we get today. For which I blame Henry Miller.