‘Woman of Substances’ is more than just another example of memoir-as-journalism
When Roland Barthes argued in 1967 for writing to be divorced from the context of its author, perhaps he foresaw the proliferation of memoirs that have come to dominate the publishing landscape in recent years. In particular, we have seen nonfiction writing largely given over to memoir-as-journalism, an explorative essay shaped by the author’s views and experiences rather than comprehensive investigation of concepts.
That women, minorities and young people are the authors of much of today’s memoir-as-journalism is probably not a coincidence. Whether they have been drawn there by identity politics or pushed by the structural inequities of the publishing industry, a quick survey of recent Australian titles sees the stories of writers as the dominant form. Maxine Beneba Clarke, Yassmin Abdel-Magied, Alice Pung, Cory Taylor, Magda Szubanski, Sian Prior, Kate Holden, Benjamin Law, Jenevieve Chang, Nikki Gemmell and Sarah Vincent have in recent years all put friendly faces to ugly truths.
Last year, Korean-American investigative journalist Suki Kim wrote of her dismay when her dangerous and groundbreaking work Without You, There Is No Us: Undercover Among the Sons of North Korea’s Elite was turned into a memoir by her publisher. “I later learned that memoirs in general sell better than investigative journalism.”
As the world grapples with the “post-truth age”, are we living in a time where truth cannot stand alone from experience?
The latest book in the trend is Jenny Valentish’s memoir/research/self-help work, Woman of Substances: A Journey into Addiction and Treatment (Black Inc., $32.99). Sober for eight years after a lifetime of excess, Valentish walks back through her life and relates trauma and addiction to her research into the unique psychological, biological and environmental factors surrounding female addiction that have until recently been actively ignored by much of the scientific and academic community.
She tells of early sexual abuse, years as a “successful” teenage groupie, national scandal as the face of the UK’s promiscuous fanzine Slapper: The Groupie’s Guide to Gropable Bands, and a toxic but intriguing first marriage. However, it’s clear Valentish’s passion lies in exploring the underlying causes and their effects (she is currently completing a graduate diploma in alcohol and other drugs), and, in the most female of ways, offering companionship and reassurance for her readers. Her anxious, gorgeous, amusing and raw recounting of her first year of sobriety is the highlight of the book, outside of the compelling and – speaking as its target audience – confronting research.
It is undoubtedly a book that needed to be written, yet as the work continued to connect research to the author’s experiences, I could not help but return to wondering whether she could have had an investigative work published without her own story to guide it – and whether she would have wanted to.
The end result is that Valentish doesn’t stray from her lane, as the expression goes. We know that Indigenous women in Australia are subject to scorefolds more of the trauma, stigma, discrimination, abuse and addiction than that of the average white woman. The opportunity to visit places like Alice Springs to see some of the harshest conditions that addicted women endure – and the often groundbreaking treatments used there – is overlooked in an attempt to centre the book in pop culture, rather than the wider female experience.
New journalism’s children aren’t dead, but their works are stillborn – unable to take on a life and meaning of their own, woven with an unimpeachable view of the world that is not up for interpretation or contest. This isn’t to say that personal experience is unworthy of exploration, but, for women and minorities in particular, it’s disheartening to see the trend towards identity as the driving force in writing, as opposed to argument, investigation or style. When everyone stays in their own lane, we only further erode our connections.
At a time when societal bonds are decaying and conventional politics is stagnant at best, we need words more than ever. If “we tell ourselves stories in order to live”, as Joan Didion put it, what does it say of a world where we are only telling our own stories?
In struggling to see ourselves as a part of a whole, the world of letters is using memoir to examine what journalism ought to. The result is that we are trapping ourselves in a lonely solidarity: seeking heroes, and ultimately hope, in the lives of others.