Monday, July 27, 2009

Age of the memoir

There was an interesting article this weekend in The New York Times about the boom in popularity of memoirs following Frank McCourt’s successful 1996 book, Angela’s Ashes. A storyteller at heart, McCourt had shared tales about his “miserable Irish childhood” in Limerick aloud for years during his time as an English teacher at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. It was only natural, then, that when he finally published his memoir, it would become a beloved book that captured the imaginations of readers everywhere.

However, in the spirit of “Hey, I can do that...,” pretty soon everyone thought they had an interesting life story to tell. Memoirists started coming out of the woodwork to capitalize on the popularity of the genre, and still do today. Now, with books like Eat, Pray, Love landing Oprah spots and movie deals, many hopeful authors are under the impression that their spiritual journey, too, is exactly what the bestseller list is missing. (Just ask THE INTERN.)

The memoir has become, as the article states, “an easier route to fame and fortune than the novel.” And if your experiences aren’t exactly fascinating enough to captivate audiences, well, then, you might just add a little something here and there to make it spicier—or least less insufferably mundane. (Just ask James Frey.)

In all fairness, having that nonfiction element to offer the media when publicizing a book is often what makes a strong literary campaign—which is why it’s often what publicists and publishing houses encourage from authors. (And also why it’s easier to get a memoir published than a novel in the first place!)

But the industry may have created a monster by indirectly encouraging authors to write about their real life experiences, rather than the fictional stories they might have written instead. Not only has it led to blatant fabrication in some cases, but in others...well...let’s just say not everyone writes memoirs like Frank McCourt.


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