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Text/Book: Envying the Oversharers
Zoe Whittall shares the memoirs that see her through novel writing and beach lounging


Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.

I admire a lot of people I could never be — people who zip-line through the jungle, who can re-wire your house or perform an emergency tracheotomy, for example. Part of what I love about my girlfriend is that she can do a tracheotomy, and once fought off a pack of wild dogs with a stick while biking across Canada. She can reach tall shelves and shingle a roof. This is amazing to me. I have no spatial or mechanical intelligence, and if a pride parade for wimpy, cautious introverts existed, I would be grand marshal.

Who else do I love with a blend of respect and envy? Porn stars and memoir authors. I can barely handle small talk at parties, so imagine my delight at knowing that certain humans are capable of having sex in front of other human beings, purely for our enjoyment. These are amazing people. Ditto to those who can write a tell-all. You are incredible. I love your various compulsions towards the over-share, and your physical and emotional flexibility.  I cringe when anyone even suggests my fiction is based on fact; I haven’t gone topless since I was a precocious 19-year-old on Parliament Hill protesting…something. You should both be celebrated.

If you’ve had a mental breakdown, I want to read about it. Did you grow up Amish? Tell me. I also love that by-product of third-wave feminism, the identity-based personal essay anthology. I’ve read a ridiculous number of biographies about Pierre Trudeau for someone who was seven years old when he left office. My favourite tell-all, however, is the famous novelist who wants to talk about their childhood. Or alcoholism. Or that time they were kidnapped. I don’t really care if you’re lying or exaggerating, as long as I believe the stories are possible and I am entertained. The exception? Writers recalling conversations from when they were toddlers, and allowing themselves to speak in full, insightful sentences. (Yes, I mean you, Jeanette Wells.)

It is sometimes difficult to be a critical reader of memoirs because often the authors of said books are not, primarily, writers. Of course there are the historians and the journalists and storytelling masters, but one must be relaxed and forgiving with the tell-all genre, and this is a draw when one reads for a living.

There are two times a year when I binge on memoirs. One is when I can’t possibly look at another page of my current novel-in-progress and I’m sleepy and no one is obliging my whines to “No, tell me a story!” The other is when I’m lying horizontal on a beach somewhere. By the time you see this, dear reader, I will be on a sugary beach down south, tote bag brimming with the latest memoirs — including Rob Lowe’s autobiography. Do not scoff. Below is a list of truthful stories I’ve read in the last few months, and will recommend you embrace, without shame.

Porn Star Memoir

Girlvert: A Porno Memoir by Oriana Small AKA Ashley Blue (Barnacle Books)

Porn star turned memoirist? Awesome. Literature has long been fixated on whores — check out the play Les Demimondes for a true education in the cultural obsession — and so memoirs by sex workers are always somewhat meaningful in that voice-of-the-voiceless way. Queer culture tends to embrace and celebrate our porn stars as the revolutionary boundary-breakers that they can be. Mainstream porn is a whole other world, much talked-about and mythologized by people who are not directly involved, yet invariably participate by consuming it. When Oriana Small was 20, she was partying in L.A. with a sweetheart/scumbag boyfriend and trying to find work when they decided to pair up and get into the competitive world of pornographic films. The industry, like most industries, is not always kind to the ladies, but Small isn’t trying to convince the reader of anything. This isn’t another victim memoir and nor is it a fake-y celebration of porn as empowerment. A skillful storyteller, Small takes us through the various ups and downs of her career — appearances in over 300 adult films, including seventeen that she directed. The narrative voice is honest and funny, and the story moves along at a quick, dirty clip. 

Mental Breakdown Lit

Your Voice in My Head by Emma Forrest (Other Press)

Another confession: I kind of like it when rich girls write mental health memoirs. I think it’s one of those things that you start out loving to hate and later have to admit you love purely, sans irony or disdain. Emma Forrest was a 22-year-old journalist who moves to NYC from London and proceeds to unravel in the usual Girl, Interrupted ways — cutting, bulimia, self-loathing, etc. She finds solace with a gifted psychiatrist who helps keep her from circling the drain.  Then she starts dating a celebrity — unnamed in the book, but everyone with Google will know it’s Colin Farrell — and when all goes wrong, she finds out her psychiatrist has died. Forrest is a gifted writer, and Your Voice in My Head is a worthwhile addition to the crowd of solipsists willing to bear their demons, so that we might learn about ourselves through them.

Personal Essay Anthology

Why Are Faggots so Afraid of Faggots? Flaming Challenges to Masculinity, Objectification, and the Desire to Conform, edited by Mattilda Bernstein Sycamore (AK Press)

Best title ever? Yes. Years ago I worked customer service on a phone line for gay men looking to hook up. “Straight-acting” was the adjective 99% of the men on the line bragged about in their 30-second sexual biographies. Really? Misogyny is everywhere, especially amongst the gays, where being feminine is the worst and blending is key to status. Gross. Boring! This anthology is an answer to the hypocrisy of gay norms, exploring the topic via personal stories. Like all anthologies, it’s a mixed bag in terms of prose quality, but there are some gems.

Literary Memoir

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson (Grove Press)

When author Jeanette Winterson was 25, her semi-autobiographical debut novel Oranges are Not the Only Fruit became a bestseller. It’s about a girl adopted into an evangelical working-class family in the ‘60s and the cruelties she endures. Over 20 years later, Winterson tells the whole truth about her childhood with her adoptive mother, who uttered the title phrase, and who, among other things, tried to exorcize the gay out of her. The memoir is beautifully written, heartbreaking, and a fascinating look at the unlikely origins of a passionate literary life.

I won’t go so far as to review Motley Crue’s The Dirt, but will say that it’s the best in the dirtbag biography subgenre, if you’re into that kind of thing.

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Zoe Whittall’s latest novel is Holding Still For as Long as Possible, published by House of Anansi Press. You can find her on Twitter at @zoewhittall.

For more, follow us on Twitter at @torontostandard, and subscribe to our newsletter.

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