More views on memoir

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Today Salon features an interview of meta-memoirist and comedian Michael Showalter. His book about writing his memoir is not so much about the process of writing as it is about not having a process. The interview goes on to discuss the current popularity of memoirs by comedians. Showalter opines, “They may not have the writing chops of a Dave Eggers, but they're salacious and funny and self-reflective.”

Brevity’s managing editor, Liz Stephens, responds specifically to Neil Genzlinger’s recent protest about the glut of confessional memoir on the market (discussed in this blog on 1/31/2011). Stephens notes that memoirs of famous people and celebrities will always have their audience:

But I’m not one of those people. And so how they’ve lived their lives does not interest me, unless their lives are suddenly very relevant to me (my new president) or much later have historical value (Ben Franklin). But me, I will always be mired in the everyday.

She believes memoir by ordinary people is inherently compelling, at least to someone. And regarding the line between popular and literary writing, she adds:

There are a thousand people you’ll walk by today who are not interested in lyric essay, disjunctive timeline narrative, any of the markers of high literature which might otherwise absolve a memoir from a humble authorship.

Lisa Tener quotes literary agent Regina Brooks with these tips on writing a successful memoir:

“Building a platform is about learning to conceptualize and strategize campaigns that cause buzz, dramatically fueling word-of-mouth and boosting your chances of attracting attention in the publishing world and beyond. With eyes focused on the bottom line, today’s agents and editors look for authors who not only write well and have great ideas (hooks), but those who come with an established audience too.”

As a new writer, I’d rather focus on my writing than on hooks and platforms. But ultimately I have to make decisions about who my audience is and how to reach them. Memoir or otherwise, books by famously interesting people, from Lee Iacocca to Britney Spears, will occupy more shelf space than literary work that appeals to a smaller readership. As a reader, I hope I can find Frank Conroy and Alison Bechdel (and add your own favorite memoirist) on that shelf.