In the modern era where the online world leads to people posting pictures of their #delicious meals and over-sharing details of their lives that no one, not even their parents really want to hear, a strange wave has overtaken memoir, causing the genre, as a whole, to suffer.
At one time memoir was considered a genre left for literary individuals or cultural figures who had lived life to the fullest or undergone some process of self-discovery that made their stories worthy of a public audience. But in recent years, this type of memoir has become overlooked and has been replaced, like a lot of great literature is, by works of nonfiction written by celebrities whose rise to stardom is deemed worthy of a book (i.e. whichever B-list celebrity publishers decide will make them the most money by writing about their drug problems, or embarrassing sexual endeavors) and memoirs that have on-screen potential.
These days it seems that everyone with a computer and the ability to form a sentence (although not always a grammatically correct one) thinks they can and should write a memoir; there is even a Memoir Writing for Dummies manual available for those just starting out. This both upsets me and excites me as a writer and reader of nonfiction. On the downside I see how this growing genre is becoming overly commercialized, but I also see how the influx of people writing memoir and creative nonfiction could potentially result in new icons of the genre.
It feels as if memoir is currently being broken down into subgenres, with literary memoir only making up a small percentage of the books being written. The first subgenre surging in popularity is the often-frivolous celebrity memoir. These little gems have been popular and profitable for decades now, with nonfiction publishers clinging to the notion that the general public will want to know how stars and the elite made their fames and fortunes (or lost them both). In 2014 alone, Amy Poehler, Oprah Winfrey, Neil Patrick Harris, Lena Dunham, Alan Cumming, Rob Lowe, Danielle Fishel, Mario Lopez, and Joan Rivers all came out with memoirs. Other memoirs of the past decade include the highly successful Bossypants by Tina Fey and Mindy Kaling’s book, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns). I have read many of these titles, and though I often found them comical and, occasionally, well written, they seem to blend into one indistinguishable memoir after time, with only a few strange or innovative pieces among them. Lena Dunham’s Not that Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned” stands out to me in particular, as her style and content are compelling and Dunham is seemingly unafraid to discuss taboo issues. But even Dunham, who went to Oberlin College for creative writing, slips into an advice-giving tone at time that I find clichéd.
Along with the celebrity memoir subgenre, the memoir fit for movie production has flourished. New additions to this subgenre include American Sniper and Wild. But before this year many other memoirs have been further commercialized by Hollywood, including, but not limited to, Not Without My Daughter, Marley & Me: Life and Love With the World’s Worst Dog, Eat, Pray, Love, and Girl, Interrupted. Even the well-written and intriguing story of former Smith College student Piper Kerman has been claimed by Netflix and altered for television purposes. While I’ve read many of these works and been entertained and captivated by some of the stories I cannot say that these are the most worthy of public acclaim.
As the caliber of writing in these memoir subgenres improves, there is the ever-popular high school reading list memoir. This rather small, yet common, list is made up of the classics. They mainly follow the lives of famous historical figures or leaders who’s works are now associated with societal change. This list consists of books like Anne Frank’s A Diary of a Young Girl, Ellie Wiesel’s Night, Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings, and Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. After reading every one of these memoirs throughout my high school career, I came to appreciate how open each of these people write about their lives and the injustices they endured throughout them, and I do think they are important touchstones of the genre; however, so many more nonfiction collections and memoirs have come out since the previously listed were published.
While I will not blatantly recommend against reading any of these subgenres – as I have read and enjoyed many of them already – I’m reluctant to endorse these branches of memoir/nonfiction. Though many of them are often entertaining and good for a thoughtless read on the beach, these types of memoirs do not give an accurate depiction of the genre as a whole. Memoirs like reality star Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s 2011 memoir Confessions of a Guidette is not a piece of literature that young nonfiction writers should aspire to emulate. Instead of emphasizing celebrities, drama, and historic figures, we need to consider emphasizing emerging memoirists who make the ordinary extraordinary or who are able to write with such candor and control that readers can tell they are reading the works of literary masters. I want to see memoirs like Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club and Lit, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, or Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth, memoirs that made me want to become a writer, get more recognition and readership. I want truly remarkable memoirs to be the works people first think of when they think of the genre and I want the celebrity fluff to take a backseat for a while. But maybe I’m just being too optimistic about what the general public is willing to read.