On Being Self-Absorbed

We Tweet our every thought. We put pictures of what we’re eating on Instagram. We post selfies with faces that we don’t really make normally and share them on Facebook. We’re self-absorbed.

So, if we’re already pre-conditioned to read what people share about themselves, then why do book reviewers keep writing that the authors of memoirs are “self-absorbed”?

Yes, self-absorbed.

I’m flipping through the reviews of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild on Goodreads. Almost 2/3 done myself, I wanted to see what others think. On nearly every page of reviews that loads, at least one Goodreads user calls Strayed “self-absorbed.”

Recently, the New York Times calls Lena Dunham (her, not her memoir) “…acerbic and vulnerable; self-absorbed and searching; boldly in your face and painfully anxious.” Even Doris Lessing hasn’t escaped being called “self-absorbed” in her autobiography. Too, Elizabeth Gilbert is frequently attacked for being self-absorbed. Anna North of Jezebel looked at Gilbert’s second memoir and noted the following:

Eat, Pray, Love made me feel like Gilbert’s life was easy because it was “easy for people to be sweet to her.” What was I supposed to learn from that?

North’s question brings up an important point: are readers supposed to connect to the memoir that they read, or is the memoir meant to share foreign experiences? Readers often comment that they dislike a memoir because the authors made decisions that the reader herself never would have made (having an abortion, taking up a religion, getting high, shopping frantically, disrespecting her mother, whatever).

I’m now asking myself the simple question: What does it mean to be self-absorbed in a memoir?

Is this something of which we’re only accusing women? When Jonathan Franzen was self-absorbed, it was because purposefully turned a hard mirror on himself. John Cleese was self-absorbed, too, in his memoir Fawlty Towers, though it was called an “exercise in self-absorption.” Granted, the review of Cleese’s work is not positive, but why is him being self-absorbed an “exercise” of sorts, whereas women are themselves self-absorbed? Reviewers, possibly unintentionally, suggest men calculate when they think about themselves too much, but women cannot help but be obsessed. So, is this the age old problem of society telling women that they’re too involved with themselves, that their time and attention is better spent elsewhere: the husband, the children, the kitchen?

What memoirs have you been reading? Would you consider any authors “self-absorbed”?

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