Is Publishing Still Heading Toward Memoir?
January 14, 2022
Earlier today, I stopped into a Barnes & Noble to check out the books. I love books. I am addicted to books. I need a 12-step program.
Anyway, I was delighted to see there was a full row of “Memoir.” I think it’s the first time I’ve seen a section labeled “Memoir” in a major bookstore. Instead, I’ve seen a separate “Biography” section or, worse yet, the memoir/biography mixed in with the section for which the subject was famous. Abraham Lincoln would be in “History.” Kurt Vonnegut would be in “Literature” and Lou Gehrig would be in “Sports.”
Back when I worked in a book store, every once in a while, I’d come across a “multipotentialite,” a career slasher who had multiple jobs. Where should I stick someone like Al Franken? He started his career as a comedian/writer/producer/actor on Saturday Night Live, so “Entertainment?” Then, published a series of political satires, so “Politics?” Then, he became a U.S. Senator, so “History?” Finally, Franken was forced to resign from office after a “#MeToo” scandal, I’m thinking “Women’s Studies?” Clearly having a separate section solves a lot of problems.
Many people don’t know the difference between a biography and a memoir. A biography is a person’s life story from beginning to end, while an autobiography is written by the subject of the story. By contrast, a memoir is “containerized,” and covers a specific time in a person’s life. For example, The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion focuses on the year following her husband’s sudden death.
Sometimes the terms are used interchangeably. Frank McCourt published Angela’s Ashes, in 1996, when he was fifty-six years old. The Pulitzer Prize winning memoir takes place during his childhood in Ireland, from birth to age 17. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings also chronicles her life up to age 17, and was published in 1969 at the age of 41. At the time, it was considered an autobiography. The term “memoir” didn’t seem to catch on until the early 1990s when stories written by ordinary people took off. Recently, many “autobiographies,” like Angelou’s, have been rebranded as “memoir.” To make matters even more confusing, the Pulitzer Prize bestowed upon a winning memoir is for “Biography or Autobiography.”
Memoir is a very popular form not only to write, but to read. People enjoy hearing true stories about people with whom they identify. There is also something more genuine about real people versus characters created in an author’s imagination.
In the recent feature film The Tender Bar, based on a memoir by J.R. Moehringer, several characters encourage the aspiring young writer with the observation, “Publishing is heading toward memoir.” It was the 1990s and, with 2020 hindsight, they managed to predict the future. Now, in the 2020s, the shelves in the bookstore tell me memoir will be popular as long as people continue to read.