Memoirs. Creative Non-fiction. Autobiography. No matter what you call it, recalling one’s life, famous or not, is a popular genre. It’s so popular some have even been made into films (for example, Eat, Pray, Love). You don’t need to be famous, though, to write a successful memoir. That used to be the case decades ago because only celebrities and historical figures seemed to be the most interesting people on the planet. Today this isn’t the case and in fact some of the most successful memoirs are written by the average person.
Why are memoirs so popular? Is there a correlation between the popularity of the genre with the virtually universal usage of social media such Facebook, Twitter, and blogs? Perhaps, although trying to find information to back this up has been difficult. Social media does seem to have had an impact on how people present and talk about themselves.
The memoir, or autobiography as it used to be known as, has been around for centuries. St. Augustine’s famous Confessions was written in the very late 4th century and moved people so much by his life story and conversion to Christianity that it heavily influenced the spread of the religion throughout the world. During the 18th and 19th centuries, readers were usually unable to distinguish between fiction and nonfiction so people used that to their advantage by selling tales of their wild lives.
In article from 2007, Jerry Waxler discusses why memoirs have become popular. He argues that through a memoir a reader can experience different lives and different viewpoints without having to ask intrusive questions. I agree with this to a certain degree but that only makes sense if the author has something powerful to say. For example, The Autobiography of Malcolm X had a big influence on perceptions and misperceptions of the black experience in America.
But can’t a reader get this same experience through fiction? I would say yes, especially if the author knows what they’re doing. Yes, truth is often stranger than fiction but what’s so strange about recounting the trials and tribulations of getting a divorce? Or surviving cancer? Or a survivor of abuse? True, some people aim to share a particular part of their life with others in the hopes of helping other people, but sometimes I get the impression the memoir is self-serving.
Some have used a memoir as a springboard of getting into the publishing business. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces was originally written as fiction. After not being able to sell it, he decided to market it as a memoir. That’s when it got picked up for publication. After it was revealed many sections were falsified, it still sold well and is classified as fictional memoir. Is this a good idea? Personally, I think not unless your aim is to become a memoirist. If it is then yes, by all means go that route. If your goal is to write books in other genres why start your career with a memoir? Even if it’s well written and interesting, as a reader I don’t see how that will compel me to pick up your other books unless they are in a genre I favor. Maybe that’s my own snobbery as I truly don’t get the need to share very personal information with the rest of the world.
People truly and legitimately are fascinated by the lives of other people which is good and bad. My own personal preference is to write fictional stories of other people who long to have their voices heard. I’m a very private person and because I don’t think I really have led a particularly unique kind of life. I find that blogging about being a writer and what I’ve learned or disagree with is enough sharing for me. There’s a saying “Everybody has a story to tell” which I think people take too literally. If writing a memoir is a cathartic release, that’s great but is it something you really need to share with the world?