Semi-random thoughts on memoirs

Scott Esposito says he wouldn’t want to write a memoir even if he was given a cushy book contract:

I conducted this thought experiment on myself last night: I imagined that Random House called me up and said they wanted to sign me to a 3-book deal. They couldn’t give me a very large advance, only $100,000. They said I could write all about myself and even repurpose many blog entries.

Well, Bud, after I finished my thought experiment, I was quivering on the ground. Seldom have I imagined a worse fate for myself.

New York Times book critic William Grimes, gathering much attention across the 'Net, had a similar perspective, but ended up coming out vaguely in favor of the genre.

Sebastian Matthews, a high school classmate of mine, son of the poet William Matthews, and author of the memoir In My Father’s Footsteps, likes to call memoirs “ME-MOREs.”

Memoirs are often disparaged, but they are equally often actually read. My aunt stood in line for six hours waiting for Bill Clinton to autograph her copy of his memoir. While she waited, she knitted a hat. When she arrived at the front of the line (after getting the cherished autograph), she gave him the hat.

I once heard that biography (including memoir) was the bestselling genre, outselling even fiction. I don’t know if that’s true, but it does suggest that memoir-writing might be something more than an exercise in arrogance. People want to read this stuff. When Word Munger was a satire-only site, the most-visited page was my (fake) biography page.

Of course, just because someone reads a book doesn’t mean it’s good. We need look no further than Dan Brown to know that.

But the existence of bad books within any genre doesn’t mean we should condemn the entire genre. I certainly wouldn’t deprecate all novels just because The Da Vinci Code sucked so much. Similarly, the existence of I Was a Teenage Dental Hygenist (or whatever — yes, I made that title up, but don’t be surprised if you see it in your local Barnes and Noble soon) shouldn’t take away from great memoirs like Space or Angela’s Ashes.

And since I can think of plenty of novels that are obviously memoirs with a few fantasies tossed in — everything from Great Expectations to Huckleberry Finn to Sons and Lovers — who’s to say what is or is not a memoir?

As for my own memoir, enough of my family members have told me it’s all a pack of lies that perhaps I might as well start thinking of it as a novel.

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