Jacket Copy

Books, authors and all things bookish

« Previous Post | Jacket Copy Home | Next Post »

How far will our memoir fascination go?

November 25, 2009 | 10:38 am

Decades ago, real life became the stuff of novels -- everyone knew "The Bell Jar" was taken from Sylvia Plath's own experience, but nobody wanted to call it a memoir. Flash forward to James Frey and reverse it -- he couldn't sell "A Million Little Pieces" as a novel, but it got snapped up as a memoir (novelistic liberties notwithstanding).

"Memoir" by Ben Yagoda is an "incisive exploration" of memoir, its history and its popularity in our reality-TV era, according to our reviewer. In its review, Salon writes:

Truly provocative is Yagoda's assertion that the rise of memoir shows how "authorship has been democratized"; everyone has a story to tell and who better to tell it than the one who lived it? We put less faith in expertise and objectivity, and more in what's spoken "straight from the heart."

Today in the Daily Beast, Yagoda elaborates on this idea. "Any intelligent, self-aware person with an interesting story can write a decent and readable memoir," he writes. But where do those three things intersect? Can a really, really interesting story make up for a lack of self-awareness? Can someone smart and self-aware write a good book about a relatively boring life? Would anyone want to read it?

Perhaps the biggest question is where the publishing industry fits in. It's perhaps too easy for publishers to say yes to celebrity memoirs, and hard to get them to amount to something anyone would want to read. Take this excerpt from "Still Standing," the memoir from Miss USA contestant Carrie Prejean about her big moment at the pageant:

I knew if I told the truth, I would lose all that I was competing for: the crown, the luxury apartment in New York City, the large salary -- everything that went with the Miss USA title.... Suddenly, it hit me that the long months of planning, dieting, exercising, and practicing were on the verge of paying off. If I won, I would become Miss USA, headed for the 58th Miss Universe Pageant in Nassau, Bahamas.

The prose is hardly electric. Whether or not the form has hit its peak, he writes, "it is becoming evident that the bottom of the barrel is being scraped." And he never even got to these guys.

-- Carolyn Kellogg

Photo: Carrie Prejean at the Miss Universe pageant. Credit: Eric Jamison / Associated Press