Nevertheless, there is pleasure in going back to Aristotle, in brushing up against prescriptions like “Never will a truly admirable person suffer a change from good fortune to bad fortune. It only evokes shock and disgust in an audience, not pity and fear. Whether you take them or not, Aristotle’s precepts can fuel your understanding of what writing should be.
“It’s not a craft book in the traditional sense,” writes Febos of BODY WORK: The Radical Power of Personal Narrative (171 pp., Catapult, paper, $16.95). Rather, it is a welcome “holistic approach” to writing and healing. In four essays, she defends the memoir genre against contempt, as a necessary form of “catharsis, like – dare I say it – therapy”. “Body Work” grants the writers rare permission to take themselves and their pain seriously.
Febos’ broader strokes may risk oversimplifying. The first essay, “In Praise of Navel-Gazing,” situates memoirs in the tradition of “testimonies of the oppressed” and argues that “resistance to trauma memoirs is always partly—and often only—resistance to movements for social justice. To feel the overreach of this claim, consider Alice Sebold’s 1999 rape memoir, “Lucky,” which is also an unwitting recording of white myopia; the testimony he describes led to the wrongful conviction of a black man, Anthony Broadwater, who was exonerated last year. Memoir elevates personal experience to public significance, and while Febos is right to note its “subversive” potential, it should be recognized that even accounts of trauma can serve as structures of oppression.
The next essay, on “writing a better sex,” deftly roots the challenge in shame; and another pragmatic section explores the ethics of portraying other people in non-fiction, with piercing observations such as: “There is no way for us to measure our portrayal of someone against his own conception of himself.” The final chapter has loftier goals, dissolving the boundaries between different paths to recovery. “As a child,” she wrote, “I didn’t understand spiritual, cathartic, and aesthetic processes as discrete and I still don’t.” It is satisfying to read such a unity of vision.