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Genre Wars: Fiction Vs. Memoir

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Thursday, Jan 7, 2010
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Memoir: A History

Ben Yagoda

(Penguin; US: Nov 2009)

Ben Yagoda’s book, Memoir: A History, is a fun romp through centuries of autobiography and memoir. Starting in the fifth century with The Confessions of Saint Augustine, the book races through the ages touching on some of the most famous, infamous, fraudulent, and fascinating autobiographies and memoirs of all time. From slave narratives to political memoirs, from the tales of unhappy housewives to the uplifting stories of cancer survivors, this book touches on virtually every facet of memoir and autobiography.


The book is a lively and educational read: we learn that Jean-Jacque Rousseau “was sexually aroused when spanked by the wife of [a] minister” and that Grand Central Publishing reportedly paid $1.25 million “for the right to publish a book about a rescued cat who lived for 19 years in a library in a small town in Iowa”. We learn that the “Criminal/Deviant” genre of memoir was one of the most popular in the mid 1800s and that “fake” memoirs have been around almost as long as the genre itself. The book is full of interesting facts, statistics, quotes, and anecdotes—all relating to memoir and autobiography.
  
Still, in my opinion, what is most interesting about Memoir: A History isn’t what it says about nonfiction or memoir—it’s what it says about fiction.
Fiction, according to Yagoda, is passé. Fiction’s heyday has passed. It may have been a relevant genre in the 20th century, but in the 21st century, Yagoda asserts, nonfiction and memoir rule the publishing world. This may come as a surprise to the millions currently engrossed in the Twilight series or to those who paced in bookstores at midnight waiting to purchase their copy of the latest Harry Potter novel. It was a surprise to me.


I love fiction (and I enjoy everything from literary novels to beach reads to sci-fi), but Yagoda has some impressive statistics to back up his assertion. He mentions, for example, that nonfiction currently outsells fiction four to one and that “total sales in the categories of Personal Memoirs, Childhood Memoirs, and Parental Memoirs increased more than 400 percent between 2004 and 2008”. He references Elie Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, that was on the New York Times bestseller list for 80 weeks (at which time the paper removed it from the list stating, “the editorial spirit of the list is to track the sale of new books ... we simply cannot track such books [as Night] indefinitely”).


Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised that nonfiction may be replacing fiction as the number one form of written entertainment. After all, “reality” television programs seem to outnumber fictitious television shows (at least in the United States). And some of the memoirs Yagoda details appear perilously close to Wife Swap, Jon and Kate Plus 8, or The Real Housewives of [insert city here].


Or perhaps attending an Augusten Burroughs reading a month or so ago should have alerted me. Over 400 people, many of whom had to stand, came to hear Burroughs speak and read from his latest memoir, You Better Not Cry. After the reading, fans told Burroughs how much he meant to them, how much his work meant to them, how his work changed their lives, and then stood in line for another hour to have their books signed. I’ve never seen this type of response to a fiction writer. With films like Marley & Me, Julie & Julia, and The Blind Side, even Hollywood seems to be caught up in the nonfiction craze. 


Still, I’m not ready to write fiction off quite yet, and even Yagoda doesn’t think the genre of fiction is completely dead; it’s just become irrelevant. According to Yagoda, the last mainstream novels to have a social impact were written by authors like Frank Norris and Upton Sinclair close to 100 years ago. Nor, of course, does Yagoda think that all memoirs and autobiographies have a social impact. Certainly, there are memoirs that are poorly written and have absolutely no literary merit. There are memoirs that are too focused on a political agenda or too concerned about where they land on the bestseller list to care about truth or accuracy. There memoirs are the literary equivalent of chip dip. 


On the other hand, Yagoda tells us “while only a handful of recent memoirs can take their place with literature of the first order, the boom has spawned hundreds of worthwhile books. Many have shed light on an impressive variety of social, ethnic, medical, psychological, regional, and personal situations. And many are just plain good.”


Yagoda’s own book falls into the last category of “just plain good”. It was a fun read, even though I didn’t agree with everything he had to say. Still, after reading it, I added several memoirs to my personal must-read list. But that same must-read list has multiple fiction titles on it as well, and I’m hopeful that at least some of them may actually be relevant. 


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