Why Is There a Surge in Memoir? Is It a Good Thing?

Memoir by Meni's Style and A S O !
Flickr / Meni’s Style and A S O !

Today’s guest post is by Shirley Hershey Showalter, who has been blogging about memoir for four years and is writing a memoir about growing up on a Mennonite farm in the 1950s–60s.

Depending on whom you ask—or what lens you apply—memoir is either a boomlet that burst or a timeless form just now coming into its own. The first lens, the literary lens, gets a fair amount of press attention. The second lens, a more hidden one, may need a little more magnification. While I believe memoir is just coming into its own, let’s look at a few expert views. 

The Literary Lens: A Genre Comes Into Its Own

Some call our time “the age of memoir,” most notably William Zinsser in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir (1998).

Thomas Larson, in The Memoir and the Memoirist: Reading & Writing and Personal Narrative (2007), makes memoir sound like Davy Crockett when he says it burst forth “sui generis from the castle of autobiography and the wilds of the personal essay.”

Ben Yagoda believes the years 1990–2010 marked the memoir boom period. In Memoir: A History (2009) he writes:

According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks about 70 percent of U.S. book sales, total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008. Also, memoirs in Britain occupied seven out of ten bestselling nonfiction hardcovers in both 2007 and 2008.

Other experts, such as Marion Roach Smith and Dinty W. Moore, focus on the longevity and ubiquity of the tradition. Memoir by any other name would smell as sweet and has always been present regardless of name or form. Moore gives credit to Montaigne for floating the revolutionary notion “that one man’s life could represent all men.” This idea came to fruition in the late twentieth century when, says Moore, “authors proved that a memoir could be every bit as compelling and artful as a novel.”

Marion Roach Smith, author of The Memoir Project: A Thoroughly Non-Standardized Text for Writing and Life (2011), says, “People have written about themselves since people could write.” She appreciates especially how memoir opened up previously unknown worlds. She writes:

We would not know about the lives of the disenfranchised. That awareness alone is worth real study. I am reading one right now from 1849, written by a slave. It’s fascinating as it is horrible in its graphic description of the daily life of a young woman who was a third-generation slave. We would not have this data were it not for this genre.

All experts agree that something new happened to the genre in the 1990s. Many observers have linked the memoir boom to the publication of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes in 1999and its trip to the bestseller list, the Pulitzer Prize, and the National Book Award. With a subtitle like A Memoir, and with an author who was a retired public school teacher, this book—along with the earlier and more sensational tale, A Child Called It by Dave Pelzer in 1995—sent out a subliminal call to others, especially those who had endured difficult childhoods, to write their own stories.

The mixed response to memoir’s rise was predictable. The literary/publishing world, which after all is a pretty small town, praised some of the writing, but questioned much more, and especially decried the outpouring of victim stories. In Britain, wags gave the movement a name: the misery memoir or misery lit.

Of course, parody was sure to follow, as it did with My Godawful Life by Michael Kelly using the pen name of Sunny McCreary.

As writers and publishers sniffed a cresting market, pressure increased to exaggerate or even fabricate stories of misery. Enter James Frey, Margaret B. Jones (aka Margaret Selzer), Herman Rosenblatt, and Greg Mortenson. These were only the most egregious cases that led to accusations of fraud, and soon we entered the thorny eternal dialogue: What is truth?

Post-Memoir Boom Theorizing

The field of creative nonfiction, from the perspective of  writing programs and literary magazines, has erupted in a frenzy of dialogue following the publication of two books by John D’Agata, About a Mountain (2010) and The Lifespan of a Fact (2012). D’Agata wants to claim a space for the production of art between what we now call the novel, journalism, memoir, and essay. His resistance to fact checking and fact checkers is legendary. Want a ringside seat to an academic tempest? Check out this essay, and especially the comments, in the online magazine Brevity: D’Agata’s Trickery and Manipulations: Dinty W. Moore Speaks Out.

David Shields, in Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (2010), has written the book that tries to explain the enormous craving for the real in the twenty-first century. He too questions the ideas of facts and celebrates the artist’s freedom to borrow from the past in order to create the new. He doesn’t just examine memoir and other written forms; he connects them to scores of other forms of reality, on TV and the Internet. Among them are hip-hop, sampling, and YouTube. In an age of superficiality and contrivance in places previously thought to be sacrosanct or at least dependable bastions of truth—such as religion, politics, and journalism—we need new forms that narrow the gap between fiction and nonfiction and liberate the artists among us.

A host of old genres are breaking apart, and new ones—usually mash-ups, smash-ups, collages, and pastiches—arise. “All art is theft,” says Shields, and he heralds the arrival of works that attempt to strip away the artificiality of the current political and cultural environment by making that very artifice visible.

The Popular Lens: A Quiet Revolution

While intellectuals and artists are arguing, less raucous conversation has been going on. It reflects much of the same cultural milieu. It, too, manifests a hunger for reality, but it is more personal, interested less in genres and their names and more in stories themselves and the meanings behind them. The combination of a democratizing force like the Internet and a population of more than 78 million people over the age of 50 in the U.S. means that anyone contemplating the meaning of life can now readily locate the means of production to share his or her wisdom. Indie publishing has accelerated the numbers of new memoir authors.

Blogging has been a vehicle for many to explore how their own stories connect with others they could not have known before. Blogger and memoir writer Jerry Waxler says, “Vast numbers of people are aspiring to become storytellers, turning this into a boom time for the story arts.” Waxler teaches workshops where, he says, “people come with such longing to try to turn life into story.” He sees the same interest online where people come to improve their writing skills. As he has been drawn more and more into writing and teaching, Waxler is increasingly curious about what motivates these new writers.

Linda Joy Myers began the National Association of Memoir Writers after sensing a similar need. She says there is a huge grassroots movement for people to write their stories. (An interesting commonality: Both Waxler and Myers are experienced therapists.) Myers describes the memoir spectrum: “From healing the past, to leaving a legacy, from darkly investigative stories that plumb the psyche, to humorous snippets that revive faith in the human condition.” 

The Old Truth About an Examined Life

As with many revolutions, whether at the elite or popular level, the new is most powerful when it connects with ancient truths. Marion Roach Smith sums up what may be the best reward of the age of memoir and even an explanation for its rise: “So, yes, there are more memoirists, probably because it is simply so much easier and so much more acceptable to be one. Then there is the fact that it feels good. Why? That old truth about an examined life. It settles the mind. It makes us sure of things. Nothing quite like it.”

Do these explanations make sense to you? What do you think about the emergence of memoir writers, memoir theorists, and memoir coaches?


Share on:
Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

newest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments