I’m an unrepentant memoir junkie. For some reason, I have always favored true personal stories over fiction, and this year I finally completed a proposal for one of my own.
I say finally because it has taken years — decades, actually. I’m terrified of the repercussions of exposing myself, my friends, and my family members who might prefer to stay off the page. I’ve spent many hours talking with memoirists about this, asking them how they found the courage to reveal so much, and what their personal philosophies are regarding other people’s privacy.
The writer of a memoir must necessarily reveal a great deal about herself or himself, and often about other people, too. You sacrifice your own privacy, and you sacrifice the privacy of others to whom you may have given no choice. They may enjoy the attention or be enraged by it. “People either claim it or they sue you,” the head of press at my publisher told me in the weeks before my memoir was published. I knew who might sue or come after me—members of the regime that had killed my father. I comforted myself with the belief that they had for the most part been exiled or discredited, or had gone underground. The only person I allowed to read the unpublished manuscript was my stepmother, because I was concerned about her safety even more than my own. She still lived in the country, and the violence can ricochet for months after a civil war.
In the final draft, I changed one name only—of the man who had betrayed my father for the promise of money, agreeing to give false testimony at his treason trial on behalf of the regime. He admitted this to me during our interview. I despised him and I knew other readers of the book would despise him, too. He had a pitch selling Lotto tickets in Freetown, a small city. Anyone could find him just by asking around, as I had done. Already, one or two one or two suspected former rebel soldiers had been lynched in the city.
For this reason, I changed his name, and privately decided that I would change any other names that my stepmother wanted me to. But without saying this, I let her read the book. When she gave it back to me, she made no comment. On the final page, I found a checkmark and the words “Well done, darling!” Later, she elaborated: if we were going to do it, we would go all the way.
I believe in the writer—the writer, above all. That’s how we started off: admiring the writer. We organized the New York Review according to the writers we admired most: Edmund Wilson, Wystan Auden, Fred Dupee, Norman, Bill, Lizzie, Mary among them. Each of them had a confident sense of their own prose, and it meant a great deal to them—the matter of a comma, a semicolon, a word—and it does to our writers today. And so, when it comes to making a change, we should not do it without their permission. If a moment comes at some point where we see something should be improved, we don’t just scribble it in but call them up wherever they are. And that is, I think, crucial.
Shortly after I started Longreads, I was invited to visit the offices of the NYRB to meet their digital editor Matthew Howard. A man was walking toward the front of the office so I stopped him and asked if he knew where Matthew might be. He politely responded that he did know, then turned and walked back through the office to track him down. Matthew met me with a handshake, laughed, and then asked me, “You realize you just sent Robert Silvers to fetch me, right?”
Every writer of nonfiction who has struggled with the ditch and the bushes knows what Mitchell is talking about, but few of us have gone as far as Mitchell in bending actuality to our artistic will. This is not because we are more virtuous than Mitchell. It is because we are less gifted than Mitchell. The idea that reporters are constantly resisting the temptation to invent is a laughable one. Reporters don’t invent because they don’t know how to. This is why they are journalists rather than novelists or short-story writers. They depend on the kindness of the strangers they actually meet for the characters in their stories. There are no fictional characters lurking in their imaginations. They couldn’t create a character like Mr. Flood or Cockeye Johnny if you held a gun to their heads. Mitchell’s travels across the line that separates fiction and nonfiction are his singular feat. His impatience with the annoying, boring bits of actuality, his slashings through the underbrush of unreadable facticity, give his pieces their electric force, are why they’re so much more exciting to read than the work of other nonfiction writers of ambition.
In Academically Adrift, Arum and Roksa paint a chilling portrait of what the university curriculum has become. The central evidence that the authors deploy comes from the performance of 2,322 students on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a standardized test administered to students in their first semester at university and again at the end of their second year: not a multiple-choice exam, but an ingenious exercise that requires students to read a set of documents on a fictional problem in business or politics and write a memo advising an official on how to respond to it. Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement, a self-assessment of student learning filled out by millions each year, and recent ethnographies of student life provide a rich background.
Their results are sobering. The Collegiate Learning Assessment reveals that some 45 percent of students in the sample had made effectively no progress in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing in their first two years. And a look at their academic experience helps to explain why. Students reported spending twelve hours a week, on average, studying—down from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 and twenty in 1981. Half the students in the sample had not taken a course that required more than twenty pages of writing in the previous semester, while a third had not even taken a course that required as much as forty pages a week of reading.
If neither party is proposing effective solutions to the cost crisis, and political deadlock in Washington is preventing the consideration of new ideas, are we doomed to witness a slowly collapsing health care system that eventually will provide adequate care only to those who can afford to pay? In his latest book on health care, the Princeton sociologist Paul Starr, who worked on the ill-fated Clinton Health Security Plan, despairs of any political action that could bring about major reform. However, a new movement in the medical profession might help to start such reform by reconfiguring the way medicine will be practiced.