Why not just say what happened? St Augustine did when he told us about the pears. Rousseau stole a ribbon and wrote about it. Kathryn Harrison turned having sex with her father into an art form. Memoirs, all of them — although each hails from a slightly different branch of the genre’s family tree that began with Augustine’s spiritual autobiography and is still proliferating madly today. In Body Work, her fourth book, Melissa Febos explores yet another branch of the genre with a collection of essays intended as “craft book” for practitioners of memoir. Following in the footsteps of Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir, it is taken as an addendum to her three successful forays into memoir thus far: Whip Smart, Abandon Me and Girlhood.
Through four essays, Febos guides the reader through her journey from aspiring writer to acclaimed author and professor, via sex work as a dominatrix, addiction, recovery and homosexuality. Taken together, these four essays tug at the latent power struggles that all memoirists come up against: the problem of just saying what happened, the intractable issue of just telling.
For women, Febos explains in the first essay “In Praise of Navel Gazing”, “telling” is subject to hefty resistance from the patriarchy. A patriarchy that seeks to silence female testimony on the grounds of indulgence — it is a solipsistic form of “navel-gazing” that bores everyone. This fatigue is unacceptable, Febos argues. Worse still, it is the engine that drives the continued oppression of women and ensures our silence. But even if you do tell or, as Febos puts it, answer the door “to the stories that come knocking”, more problems emerge. “Mind Fuck”, the second essay of the collection, explores the problem of how to write “better sex”. As a former sex-worker, Febos knows what she’s talking about: her first memoir Whip Smart “writes sex”. But, for Febos, the sex we write and the sex we want to read is conditioned by forces that we may be only dimly aware of: “Those who benefit from a dominant power structure want art that represents them […] as they want sex that reinforces the status quo”. The stories we write, Febos argues, have often been written for us in advance.
The final two essays of the collection move away from the more abstract, feminist problems of memoir-telling to concentrate on the nuts and bolts of it all. Namely, how do you shit-talk friends and family in your memoir? And get away with it? The answer is less prescriptive than in previous essays: “There are good essays that there are good reasons not to write. Sometimes it’s important to let the writer lose”. Having been fired up by what preceded this, I’m a little disappointed. What about the revolt against the silencing, against the shame police that gag us at every turn? Should some stories not be told simply because your friends won’t like it?
Do not underestimate the divine alchemy between a writer and a blank page
In the end, the spirit intervenes to guide the memoirist, the subject of the last — and perhaps strongest — essay of the book, “The Return”. Do not underestimate the divine alchemy that takes place between a writer and a blank page, she writes: “I have found a church in art, a form of work that is also a form of worship — it is a means of understanding myself, all my past selves, and all of you as beloved”. With professorial skill, Febos touches on her favourite confessional writers, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath among them. She takes ideas about healing trauma from William James and a thirteenth century Hebrew text called the Mishneh Torah in which repentance is translated as a form of return.
In Body Work, Febos continually find herself mired in a debate between truth and aesthetics that has hampered the genre as far back as Robinson Crusoe. For memoirist Mary Karr, this debate has moral as well as literary consequences: “The popular, scoffing presumption that memory’s solely concocted by self-serving fantasy and everyone’s trying to scudge has perhaps helped to bog down our collective moral machinery.” And yet we love these books to the point of drowning in them. That would suggest that readers are not so bothered by scrupulousness so much as the memoirist’s knack of storytelling. Luckily for Febos, she has this in spades.
More perplexing are her incursions into the feminist thorns of “life-writing” which besets female journalists as much as memoirists, namely the charge levelled at women that relating their own experience is somehow “self-indulgent”. She is certainly correct in underlining the sexism at work in this perception. This said, it would seem that for some time now, publishing has been operating in quite the other direction. Whatever condemnation is yoked to women writing about the messier parts of their experience, it is important to note that they are actively encouraged to write about this at the exclusion of all other topics by the publishing industry and their marketing machines. My own experience (forgive the navel-gazing) of trying to publish a memoir would certainly align: “please, don’t make it too literary, just the gut-wrenching stuff” one senior Editor told me. So, there you have it. Nice work if you can get it, but it’s the Body Work that matters.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe