Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Tough to care about crude tales

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It's quite a feat, writing an entire book based on awkward moments in your life.

Sure, David Sedaris seems to pull it off -- well, except for Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk -- but no one ever really seems able to explain why his stories work.

Tina Fey did it with aplomb. But then, she had war stories from Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock to fall back on.

But in The Harm in Asking, Sara Barron's second collection of essays on her life as a 20-something in New York, the writer is soloing. She has no top TV shows to provide fodder and her writing is just not funny enough to carry the memoir.

True, showing oneself in the worst light can be amusing. But a relentless unveiling of character flaw after character flaw -- of insensitivity and endless narcissism, all seemingly as an excuse to be crude -- results in something akin to the final Seinfeld episode and the question: Why would I care about this person?

To be completely fair to Barron, her work does stand out in the crowd of 20-somethings writing memoirs about their lives in New York -- it stands out as more vulgar and more unbelievable than the genre tends to be. (Also, to be fair, she's slotted into the 20-something crowd, but Barron's bios don't list her actual age, although a story she told in Vanity Fair hints she saw 29 several years ago.)

Bios may skip her age, but they do include her work as a storyteller both on NPR's This American Life and The Moth, a collective of live storytelling, which Barron often hosts. Perhaps the crudeness works better, maybe seems less unbelievable, on stage or radio. Perhaps Barron is a very warm storyteller in person and it's just her literary voice that's so unlikable.

Again with the fairness: About the time the reader is considering putting the book down for good, along comes a whimsical sentence or two that fills the reader with hope things are about to get a lot less gross. Such is the moment when Barron writes about learning that women with dogs are highly dateable -- the problem being she doesn't actually like dogs, let alone own one. So she heads out to a dog park, donning a cute sundress and sandals and grabbing a package of Goldfish crackers to entice the dogs.

Then comes the whimsy: "I hoped to come across as a younger and more comely Bird Woman from Mary Poppins, but with dogs instead of pigeons and Goldfish instead of birdseed."

And so the reader is hooked back in, seeking the amusing, only to be disappointed yet again.

There's perfect comic setup in the "This Might Be Controversial" game Barron has students in her writing class play to make it easier to be honest in their critiques of one another's work. The student must start with the phrase "This might be controversial..." and can follow with anything, as long as it's something they truly believe.

This could be comedy gold, but the racist, anti-Semitic and homophobic statements that come out of the students' mouths are horrifying. Not a single example can be repeated here.

Perhaps it's not just Barron. Perhaps the entire genre of New Yorker 20-somethings writing early-life memoirs must be stopped.

It brings to mind the advice H.L. Mencken famously gave a young writer: "Wait until you've lived long enough to have something to write about."


Julie Carl is the Winnipeg Free Press associate editor of reader engagement.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 5, 2014 G8


Updated on Saturday, April 5, 2014 at 8:26 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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