Thursday, June 26, 2008

Trends in Memoir

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.

11 comments:

AC said...

I've got a hunch that the internet has a lot to do with it. My impression of the memoir phenomenon in publishing is that it was just getting off the ground around the time I got out of the book retail world (2002). When I was a bookseller, we might get a lot of requests for personal memoirs of addiction, mental illness, or natural disaster, but I don't remember many titles along the lines of "Corn Doggin': My Quest to Eat Corn on Seven Continents" (got to have that explanatory subtitle). Also, I don't remember anyone having a blog back then. The only reason to have or read a blog is to either keep up with the lives of people you know or to follow someone's endeavors in a very specific line of action or inquiry. Like that woman who did a blog about cooking all the Julia Child recipes. And then got a book deal. Hmmm, didn't that happen around 2003? I think I'm going to lock that in as my final answer: blogs inspired the publishing world to promote tightly themed memoirs of ordinary life. It was the logical next step from the trauma memoirs of the late 90s.

bookfraud said...

in the last 30 years, there seems to be some premium being placed on "realness:" if something "real happened," then it stakes some claim on being closer to "the truth" than a fictionalized account of any given experience. people are no longer embarrassed to reveal their childhood horrors in memoir rather than elide them in fiction; you can blame it on oprah or the rise of 12-step recovery programs or how our culture now values self-confession and awareness rather than quiet self-reflection.

or,you can point to the fact that memoirs, because they are "the truth" are by definition more lurid, and sell like hotcakes compared to fiction. so each new memoir has to be more lurid & crazy than the last -- thus, james frey, margaret selzer, et al., who shoulda written fiction in the first place.

jrlennon said...

I'm stickin' to my publishing industry theory: ever since the buyouts of the 90's, the demanded profit margin has gone up from 3-5% to 10-15%, and so publishing houses are most willing to publish books with a sure-fire, built-in audience. The cycle is accelerated by the tendency of a certain percentage of writers to write specifically for the market, which then reinforces publishers' conviction that they have chosen the correct business plan.

rmellis said...

So a strange new synergy between Oprah and the internet... I buy that, I think.

Warren Adler said...

Sometimes it seems as if everyone I know is writing his or her memoirs. Of course, most of the people I consort with are, to be optimistic, in the last third of their lives and feel this primal urge to pass along their experiences, reflections and justifications to their progeny or anyone who’ll take the time and effort to read them. As for me, maybe someday I’ll write mine, although the story of my life is embedded in the millions of words already out there. It might take some decoding, but it is there.

jrlennon said...

I do think writing your memoirs once you've actually lived a while is an entirely legitimate enterprise. And so is doing so if, though young, you've managed to have some fascinating life experiences.

But either way, it's the writing that counts, for me--the writer's particular aesthetic, her insights, her way of seeing.

Writer Reading said...

Humans by our nature adore secrets. We also love to know that we are not the only one, that others suffer what we suffer or worse, to make us feel normal. Reading about much worse cases is reassuring, lik rubber-necking for a car accident. Thank God it wasn't me.

This country was once extremely Puritan. Nothing besides superficialities were discussed. Fiction was the only place to read about "real life" in depth. Sexual abuse did not exist. No one discussed the Holocaust for decades after it happened. Mental illness was a dirty secret. Once people started to talk about what they were really experiencing, whether it was because of Twelve Steps or the feminist movement cracking open the existence of sexual abuse or children of Holocaust survivors coming of age, memoir popularity was inevitable. Some might say -- oh, God I hate to say this -- it might be the evolution of the novel. (Cough, cough, cough.)

jackalope said...

It may be worth naming a couple of memoirs that are artful, accomplished, excellent, like Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life and Andre Aciman's Out of Egypt. Both Wolff and Aciman are wonderful fiction writers, but the memoir form (and it is or can be a form, like poetry, like the short story) provided them each with a set of tools that suited their respective non-fiction projects. The question of how and why our culture has slanted to favor real stories over imagined ones, or however you want to say it--it's an interesting, problematic question. The essayist Daniel Mendelssohn has suggested that memoir is the new novel, that we should just accept that, but again that seems like an unnecessary dichotomy. I'd also press against the notion that memoirs are always less challenging and easier to read. My favorite nugget of insight on this subject comes from V.S. Pritchett, who put it this way: "It's all in the art; you get no credit for living."

Pete said...

What amazes me isn't the bestseller status of memoirs (all of us are shameless snoopers, after all) but instead the professional memoirists like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, who have both mined their wacky younger lives so thoroughly that they've exhausted all the good material and now face the prospect of writing about the adult life of a professional memoirist. For their sake I hope they've invested their royalties wisely.

rmellis said...

WR, I think maybe one purpose of the novel has evolved into the memoir, for exactly the reasons you say. But I still think that there are other reasons to read fiction that are different and not covered by memoir.

I think I actually prefer an average memoir to an average novel, because I find the artifice and cliches in a so-so novel annoying and even offensive. Whereas the memoir is at least honest (assuming it is!) and sincere in its project.

But that rare thing, a really wonderful novel, is still my favorite thing in the world, pretty much.

Jackalope: I really do, almost always, find memoir easier to read. This doesn't mean the prose is necessarily of a lower quality -- I think good writing should be easy to read. But fiction makes certain demands that memoir doesn't -- I can feel it. I could be that I read fiction as a writer, while I read memoir as reader. I should examine this more carefully sometime.

Pete: I'm not a fan of Burroughs (I don't think he's that funny, and he's often just cruel) but I love Sedaris. His latest was rather tame, I admit, now that he's a rich guy living in France instead of a guy scraping ceilings and dressing up as a dwarf for money. But I liked it anyway.

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