Boy, are there ever a lot of memoirs out there. One keeps thinking the genre has peaked, but no. It used to be that you had to have a really unusual experience or a notable life to write a memoir, but that's not true anymore. This is what you need now: a life story with a "hook" (being raised in an unusual family, or in an unusual place, or with an unusual condition), a terrible trauma that you survived, or a wacky/strenuous challenge that you decide to undertake (eating a hamburger in all 50 states, forgoing plastic, etc.)
I really like memoirs, and I read a lot of them. For some reason they're easier to read than fiction, so when my brain feels fried (which it does a lot these days) I'll pick out the memoir from my teetering pile of unread books. So none of this is meant as criticism of the genre. It's true I'm slightly resentful of them, though -- I'm a fiction writer, and very loyal to that genre, and so far my life has not been memoir-worthy (I hope it never will be). And most memoirs are perfectly fine, but nothing I'd post about.
Mostly I'm just very curious about why this has happened. Experiences that once might have been channeled into fiction are now told straight, as memoir. Why? What changed since, say, the 70's? My mother used to read a lot of travel memoirs back then, but that and the autobiography of fame were really the only kinds of the thing that you could get back then. Why the hunger, now, to hear about a stranger's breast cancer, or young widowhood, or infertility?
JRL thinks it's marketing. A book about, say, adopting a baby from China (there's one on my store's new book table right now) has a ready-made audience: the thousands of people who've adopted from China. Or adopted at all. Everyone who knows someone with that experience will buy it for their friend as a gift. Same with the cancer memoir on the same table, and the autism one.
There's some truth to this, I think. Publishers are nervous these days, and books are expensive, and we might feel that they need to be educational somehow or giftable, to coin a term, before we shell out $27.95. Will I give my sister a literary novel from an unknown first novelist? Um, no. Will I give her a memoir about being gluten-intolerant? You bet.
But I don't think it's entirely the publishing industry pushing this stuff at us. I think there's an appetite. Some of the appetite for fiction has shifted. We want to read about real life. Did we not want to read about real life in 1975? In those days, the big beefy not-especially-well-written drama was big. We wanted to read about imaginary famous or rich people doing spectacular things. We didn't want to read about someone's terrible, but not famous, mother. (Joan Crawford yes, Mrs. Bilinski down the street, no.) We didn't care, in those days, about your obsessive compulsiveness.
Or did we? Maybe we did, but publishing was reluctant to get with the program. I remember being excited, in 1983 or so, about Go Ask Alice, the drug addiction memoir that was so titillating I had to stand in the library stacks in my snow boots and read it because my mom wouldn't let me get it out. Maybe there was a kind of literary snobbishness in publishing then that we're finally getting over.
Anyway, it's fascinating. These days, the terrible mother Mrs. Bilinski might get a whole memoir, if her daughter has literary ambitions. Who'd have thunk! And when will it end? It's got to end somewhere. Doesn't it? I certainly hope so, before one of my sons writes a book about how his mother limited him to an hour of computer time a day and wouldn't let him drink soda.