The media loves to decry the self-obsession of Generation Y. Barely a week goes past without the publication of yet another column filled with alarmist tales about naked selfies, dinner snaps and tweets detailing bowel movements. But what if we do overshare on four social media platforms? Why shouldn’t we express ourselves through selfies? And is it so wrong for young people to process their lived experience by writing a memoir?
Lorelei Vashti’s Dress Memory was released by Allen & Unwin earlier this month, making it the third Australian twenty-something memoir published recently – following Liam Pieper’s The Feel-Good Hit of the Year (in May), and Luke Ryan’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo (in July).
Gone are the days when memoir was the sole territory of fading celebs and political backstabbers. Instead, in Australia at least, the landscape belongs to the young. These writers don’t have thousands of fans or state secrets to reveal. So what gives them the authority to share their stories widely?
Pieper admits to being cynical of the genre before he wrote his own memoir. Writing for Meanjin, he said: ‘There’s an awful lot of terrible memoir, which is why I never read much of it growing up. It seemed lazy to me, a cheat; to me memoirists… were scabs, writers who were too lazy to go down the coalface of their minds and get on with making stuff up.’
It appears many people consider memoirs by young writers to be uniformly terrible. Exploring the popular perception of twenty-something memoirists, creative writing student Coco McGrath discovered an article called Tips for Readers in the pages of Oprah’s O magazine: ‘Tip number 8 stated: “Ignore memoirs by people who have barely cracked their 30s”.’
These memoirs and memoirists often face accusations of exhibitionism, accompanied by incessant cries that young people these days are doing narcissism in a new way. Even Anita Heiss has been criticised for publishing her memoir – at the green age of 43. It seems there’s a public conception that memoirs must be a detailed chronology of an eventful lifetime. Despite their youth, Vashti, Pieper and Ryan have all written fully-rounded accounts of significant periods in their lives.
Vashti is the kind of fascinating person you might come across in real life and wish would write a memoir; she went to Turkey as a teenager, had an illicit romance in a bohemian Melbourne warehouse, played in a haphazard lady band attended by giggling regulars, and waitressed in New York at a restaurant frequented by celebrities.
Although she has now hit 30, the book is about Vashti’s twenties, and each chapter centres around a dress which represents a year of that decade. ‘The dresses are precious to me because they mean something to me,’ she writes. ‘Things become more valuable once you know the story behind them.’ Her twenties were a time of exploration, but also a time of loss and renewal, and all these elements and experiences are mixed through Dress Memory‘s pages. I read it in one night, while listening to this piano cover of Daft Punk’s ‘Around the World’ on repeat. It might seem a strange accompaniment, but the book and the song are both wistful, yet hopeful.
Pieper’s The Feel-Good Hit of the Year is a similarly gratifying read. His articulate and witty rendering of drug use and its accompanying debauchery summons the spirit of Russell Brand’s My Booky Wook. Ryan’s book, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo, is his memoir of getting cancer once as a child, and again as a 22-year-old. Ryan’s tone is tragicomic; tales of life on the cancer ward are leavened by bizarre observations and deliciously dry humour.
Both Vashti and Ryan were approached by publishers to write their books; Pieper secured a publishing deal ‘by accident’. Even though Generation Y is painted as a self-obsessed generation, publishers and readers are hungry for the stories of young people’s lives. In the case of Vashti, Pieper and Ryan, their brutal self-honesty gives their stories power.
In his review of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Chemo for the Weekend Australian, Andrew McMillen writes, ‘Though Ryan’s incisive wit is the chief narrative voice here, he’s not above lifting the curtain to show the anxiety and fear that swirled through his mind offstage. These glimpses of emotional honesty are some of the book’s finest moments and add gravitas to a fine memoir that never approaches self-pity.’
Pieper’s depiction of the drug dealing scene in South Melbourne is decidedly unglamorous. After entertaining the reader with tales of being a selfish wanker, he experiences a revelation of remorse. ‘Regrets that I’d deferred thinking through years ago rose up from the dark and found me, and each felt like trying to pass a gallstone of Catholic guilt.’
In similar fashion, Vashti writes about her disappointments and depression: ‘I woke up happy beside Jack until the day wore on and I’d get sadder and sadder until night came with these explosions of grief. I was always mad at him, and immediately afterwards, always sorry. Anger and sorrow coming one after the other like a two-step dance move.’
As most legitimate grown-ups know, exploring feelings is a beastly activity: one must tear open their ribcage, pull out the contents, and search through them with bare hands. In their memoirs, these three young writers exhibit intense honesty and excruciating personal growth. Perhaps newspaper columnists should stop deriding our generational self-obsession. Narcissism may, in fact, be the path to illumination.