Welcome to Advice in The Stacks, a bookish advice column from me, Traci Thomas, the host and creator of The Stacks podcast. My show is all about books and the people who read them, with new episodes out every Wednesday on your favorite podcast platform. Due to the nature of the show I am constantly asked for advice on all things books, so I’m making it formal and bringing my advice to all of you with my monthly column here at SheReads.com.
If you have questions about anything book related, CLICK HERE and submit your question, and then come back the last Thursday of the month to see my advice.
When writing a memoir, how much historical context does an author who has been systemically oppressed have to give when writing about a current event? An example is a Black mother not receiving adequate health care as a result of systemic racism. What is the responsibility of the reader to fulfill their curiosity by doing a little research?
This is such an interesting question. My guess is that each reader would have a deeply personal answer to this question. I’ll share my thoughts here and hope other folks will share theirs in the comments.
I always assume that if a writer has taken the time to write a book, especially a memoir, they have something they want to share with their readers. Usually that something is new or at least from a new perspective. Which means that most readers might not know what they’re talking about. So, I do think memoirists should keep the audience top of mind especially when getting into the nitty gritty of their world. That is my broad and general sense.
Mostly I don’t think authors, especially those from groups that have been kept on the margins have any obligation to anyone. I think they *can* write whatever they want in their memoir. It is, afterall, their memories and their experience.
That being said, if they want readers to be immersed in their stories, they should lead the way, slowing down to explain pieces we may not be familiar with, especially those that are integral to the story. So for example, if the author is writing a memoir about working in the fashion industry and they mention what they had for lunch and it’s a food I’m unfamiliar with, I don’t think they need to explain that to me. If however, they mention a fashion insider whose work changed the author’s trajectory, I think they should give us background on that person.
Another piece of this puzzle is thinking about how the book will be received in the future. Yes, authors write to current audiences, but there is a hope that maybe their book will be read in 5 years or 50. With that in mind I think authors should explain a little more, especially things that are pop cultural, political, or current events related. In your example of Black mothers not receiving adequate health care, that is very much something we’ve been talking about and continue to talk about now. My hope is that it won’t be as relevant in 10 years (mostly because the medical industrial complex will take Black women and their pain seriously and stop killing us). So, a reference to Serena William’s birth story maybe won’t land in the same way in 2034 as it does now and the book could use a quick explainer. This goes double for a book that is dealing with motherhood in the United States specifically.
Memoirists need to have a sense of who they are writing to, and they should be asking themselves throughout the process: does a person in my target audience know this information? Will they know this information in 10 years? Do I care? I do not think any author should write to the lowest common denominator (though some do), but they should be checking in with their idea of an ideal reader. So for a Black woman writing about R&B music in the 1990s, she might not have to give a full explainer about who Aaliyah is, if her audience is millennial Black women. However, if her target audience is immigrant Boomers from Eastern Europe, she might need to do a little more work to bring Aaliyah to life.
And now, after saying all that, I also can’t stand when an author spends 5 pages writing about a thing that is easily googlable, or a thing that feels so extremely obvious. Yes dear author, we are all familiar with what a grocery store is.
Memoirists should have a clear audience in mind, and continue to ask themselves if those people would “get it”. They should explain things that are of the time of writing, well known, but may not be known to people from another time and are central to the book. They should write clearly about their life and experience but not water it down to the point that it feels like they’re writing for an alien who has never stepped foot on earth.
As for readers, you should look things up that you don’t understand and want to know more about. You should understand that you are not the target audience for every book, and that if you want to see the world more fully you too might have to do a little work.
What are some great books about obsession? Specifically female\friendship obsession.
Alright, here goes a list of books about obsession, some new, some backlist, some about female friendship, some about romantic love. I hope I hit the mark.
New People by Danzy Senna
The protagonist of this book, Maria, lives in my head rent free. When you get to the end of the book, just know I still think about that scene to this day, 5+ years after reading the book. Maria is an obsessive of the highest order.
Passing by Nella Larsen
We’ve talked about Passing in this column before, and we did an entire episode on it over on The Stacks. This book is interested not only in the obsession between Claire and Irene, the two lead characters, but the American obsession with race.
Big Swiss by Jen Beagin
A novel about obsession from afar, and follows a woman who becomes infatuated with a subject from a series of therapist sessions she’s transcribing.
Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
I think this must be the book most people immediately think of when the idea of obsession is brought to the table. Lolita is notably not about female friendship, and is instead about an adult man’s obsession with a teenage girl. Needless to say, it has a whole host of trigger warnings, so please read up on it before you dive in.
Social Creatures by Tara Isabella Burton
A New York City based thriller centered on a friendship that goes from toxic, to something much more sinister.
Yellowface by R. F. Kuang
In Yellowface we get to see where a freak accident and a competitive friendship meet. The book is a satire set against the backdrop of the modern day publishing industry.