The Perils of Memoir: Author vs. Event, or a review of Hope After Faith

Writing a memoir or personal essay is the literary equivalent of a high-wire act. It’s a thing of awe and wonder when it works, but the possibility of disaster is great. The margin of error is razor thin due to the “so what?” litmus test. All nonfiction needs to address this question, but it becomes far more stringent with memoir, which is the book version of going on a first date and talking only about yourself.

As much as I want to love Hope After Faith (as a fan of atheism, philosophy and memoir), it ultimately fails to meet the “so what?” criteria. This is not the fault of content, but rather infrastructure.

The structure of a memoir varies depending if the reader interest is on the writer or the event. One dives into Tina Fey’s Bossypants to learn more about the person. One picks up David Carr’s The Night of the Gun because they’re intrigued by the titular event, through which the reader will acquire interest in the writer.

Unfortunately, Hope After Faith begins with a chronological account of Jerry DeWitt’s life. Nothing personal, but since I don’t know the author, I’m not yet interested in his life story. The narrative would benefit from a stated thesis or present commentary rather than launching straight into DeWitt’s life story.

I’ve heard DeWitt is a great speaker, and I imagine he’d be a fascinating interview, but this is clearly a case where the prospective reader is drawn to the event more than the author. We hope to find the author interesting as well, of course, but the reason we crack the spine in the first place is to hear about his conversion.

That said, while this memoir didn’t work for me, I can see it being of interest and even value to others. Just know that the emphasis is more on the faith, not as much on the after.

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