All About Me: How Memoirs Became the Literature of Choice

Veronica Giannotta


Memoirs are the great equalizer of writing. In a genre utterly non-denominational, there is room for any story in any pattern of prose. The Christian Science Monitor reports that memoirs have seen sales increase from $170 million to $270 million since 1999. Most nonfiction MFA writing programs are geared substantially towards the genre; Hunter College even requires prospective students to submit a memoir proposal as part of their application. Many bookstores can count their autobiography sections among the most frequented and their popularity thrives.


As the use of first-person continues to rise, so does its influence on other genres of writing. The landscape of fiction is changing to reflect a continuously growing fascination with the self, and authors are challenging the conventions of storytelling by inserting themselves where they hadn’t before.


Yann Martel’s Beatrice and Virgil was about a writer struggling to follow his wildly successful first novel with an experimental second, and though Martel is known for his stylized whimsy, it was clear that he was writing from experience rather than imagination. Sheila Heti’s recent novel How Should A Person Be? is a “novel from life” where the main character is also named Sheila, and she carries a tape recorder in an effort to capture empirical evidence of her identity.


Fiction has always dealt with questions of memory and selfhood, as has been its duty to readers and the world. But traditionally the fourth wall has stayed in place; only recently do those within the story look back and try to make eye contact. Or, perhaps, only now do publishers seem to get behind such blurry novels. Certainly small publishers have been the ones at the ready to champion experimental fiction. But the bigger publishing houses have also embraced works like these, partially because they have seen such a positive response to autobiographical spin.


A few years ago, O, The Oprah Magazine featured an article by Abigail Thomas that was a how-to on memoir writing. It gave guidance to the aspiring writer on refining style, avoiding writer’s block, cultivating a tone and staying focused. “Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are…You will find there are many reasons to go look in the icebox or turn on the television, or reread Middlemarch. But pay attention to the little voice that whispers, ‘This part was interesting.’ Pay attention to everything.” Sound advice, but the article was largely geared to those who had never written, to those who do not know what they want to say—or how to say it—to those who are not necessarily setting out to effectively wrangle a slippery medium. Why then, why on earth, would a person set out to write an entire book?


Part of the appeal is that people who have published such books are considered to  have accomplished great things. Such a person can be said to have lived a full life; they have put a period on that long sentence. But all of that is a mere accolade of the deeper urgency to tell one’s story. It is so hard to make a meaningful life that if we try and then actually come close it becomes imperative to share in detail.



Still more attractive is the freedom memoirs allow a writer to create metaphor from the “facts” of one’s life. Events can be revealed as reflection, with as much or as little embellishment as is necessary to express how something feels, rather than how it is. This is likely the formal difference between autobiography and memoir and is also undoubtedly a boon to the accessibility of the genre. There seems to be something missing from works considered purely autobiographical, something stiff or too linear about the prose that renders the subject far off in the distance, despite the insistence of a frequently deployed “I”. In a New Yorker podcast, Daniel Mendelsohn describes autobiography as an oil painting to memoir’s watercolor (here, however, a reader of The New York Times articulately disagrees with this notion in an 1899 edition of the paper).


So inclusive is the form that there is an entire plane of the Internet dedicated to first-person language, the strange and wonderful Blogoshpere. What began as a live journaling experiment has become a breeding ground for unsolicited commentary, and there is often a publishing contingency surfing around, poised to administer book deals. Ever since the rampant success of Julie and Julia in 2005, blogs are routinely published in book form and often go on to sell relatively well. Kat Stoeffel’s recent Observer article announces the publication of two new blog-to-book deals, in a tone that suggests they be added to the pile. All the time, a multitude of new posts are made daily, like bits of paper crammed into bottles and cast out to sea. Each one has an eagerness to be found. They may not be borne of the same mindfulness or be as delimited in structure as the memoir, but the compulsion behind them may very well be the same.


Saint Augustine chronicles the events leading to his spiritual conversion in Confessions, the benchmark of personal literary expression. But the word memoir connotes a need for reconciliation with the past, or with memory, and these are the works that have flooded the market in the past 10 to 15 years. Frank McCourt, Jeanette Walls, Joan Didion, Augusten Burroughs and others have been memorable in the genre, and have cleared a path for many other writers to share and over-share, in both glorious and horrifying displays.


Books about traveling to remote places, beating cancer, the trials of cooking in restaurants, having an abortion, eating disorders, climbing K2, about leaving an oppressive country or religion or marriage, and of course, kabbalah. There are some memoirs that are intentionally uneventful. Sometimes there is a need for validation; sometimes a need to understand through rendering. Sometimes healing, sometimes catharsis.


When a memoir works, it can be a joy to read. Readers can discover that they identify with a person they have never met. It can put things in perspective for readers or satisfy a voyeuristic tendency.


But there are drawbacks to the form that can be a challenge to get past. For those who require that a work of nonfiction contain truth, it will be a tremendous turn-off to encounter dialogue in a memoir. A re-enacted conversation can have an insincere effect, to serve the author’s desire to come across in a certain way. For a reader, few things are worse than committing unsuccessfully to the stories of a charlatan. There is also the matter of secondary characters: people who are doomed to exist as an interpretation. They will never have a voice of their own; they will simply have to be held accountable for the author’s relationship with them, and hope that their flaws read as endearing.


Yet the greatest difficulty will be had by the authors, who must subject their most formative experiences to the constraints of language in the hope that words will not abscond with them.


Whether the end result is a work of literary distinction has little to do with memoir’s most appealing trait, which is that it is a unifying endeavor. The intrigue of first-person writing is it’s confessional quality —  the initial feeling that here is such an unusual situation that it had to be isolated from all others and put in book format —  and the subsequent realization that, actually, here is something that resonates. Perhaps a person needs to be able to see themselves, even if only in the smallest way, in order to engage with something.


When an event becomes memory, it can be called an experience. As we move through time, digesting the events that will shape our lives, we create stories that have to be imagined. These are what get written. These are the beautiful concessions of imperfect memory. If you try to take them all in, you will be smothered in an avalanche of minutiae. But then, at least, you’ll have something to write about.


Author Bio:

Veronica Giannotta is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.


Photos: Peanuts cartoons; Barnes and Noble.

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