November 4, 2009 / 8:24 AM / 10 years ago

Book Talk: History of memoirs finds scandal was not a given

CANBERRA, Nov 4 (Reuters Life!) - In his memoir, Andre Agassi has admitted to using crystal meth. Irish hurling star Donal Og Cusack came out in his recent autobiography. Sarah Palin’s autobiography became a best-seller before its release.

Dishing some dirt has become the recent trend in the memoirs that overflow bookstores with politicians, celebrities, people living an odd life for a year and even animals racing to share their lives with others.

Writer Ben Yagoda, a journalism professor from the University of Delaware who has just published “Memoir: A History”, said such candour was not always the case in autobiographies but memoirs do reflect the cultural zietgeist.

But Yagoda, the biographer of Will Rogers, told Reuters there is one thing about memoirs that has to stay constant for the genre to retain its power and popularity — the truth.

Q: What is the fascination with memoirs?

A: “People are interested in themselves so it is not surprising people want to tell their own story. The move to put it in covers goes beyond talking at a dinner party. But the question why should readers who don’t know us be interested in our story is the big question.”

Q: Are there more memoirs coming out now?

A: “It seems there are multiple ones coming out every day. I have a Google news alert for the word memoir. But the subgenre that is not growing is that of politicians and celebrities. The A-list figures have already told their stories once or twice or three times. But it is in a large part a publishing marketing phenomenon. People write their memoir then get booked for talkshow appearances. It all sounds very synergistic but in truth a lot of these books don’t sell well.”

Q: What does work? Sarah Palin’s memoir, for instance, became a best-seller through advance sales.

A: “People are often not responding to the book. She is a person in whom people are interested so the memoir is a tangible. Who knows how many people who buy it will actually read it, but the book becomes a tangible way they can express their interest in that person. It is kind of an emblem of that person.”

Q: Are celebrity memoirs new?

A: “No. In the 19th century prominent people and statesmen would write their memoirs. In the 1920s ghost written books about entertainers became a popular genre. But in those early days a memoir was expected to be a whitewashed, sanitized version of their life. Now there is an expectation of dishing some dirt and candour and gossip.”

Q: Do you think this number of new memoirs will continue?

A: “I think it will continue but it will ebb and flow ... A few years ago the non-fiction lists were full of best-selling memoirs but that does not seem to be the case any more. I think the trend it subsiding. I think we have seen the end of animal memoirs. That has to be a niche market. In terms of these misery memoirs where people write about their terrible childhood, diseases and ailments, there really is not much more to tell. But the celebrity culture is so much a part of us that the genre is not going to disappear.”

Q: Some memoirs have been unveiled as fabrications such as James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”. Does it matter?

A: “It does matter. A great deal of the popularity of the memoir, be it by a celebrity or an author, is the feel that this is a true story and that carries a lot of weight and a lot of power with it. James Frey had written his book and tried to sell it as a novel and was unsuccessful but as soon as he said it was true it sold and Oprah (Winfrey) picked it up.”

Q: Can memoirs be totally factual though?

A: “They can’t be 100 percent true. People’s memories are faulty and there is an expection that there is dialogue and who can possibly remember dialogue. But if there are deliberate fabrications and exaggerations then people aren’t going to pay attention. It is not acceptable as a memoir.”

Q: Would you ever write your memoir:

A: “That is a good question. I will never write a book memoir unless something really interesting happens to me which is not likely. But I have my career as a writer and in the last 10 or so years I have written quite a few autobiographical essays about things I have done and I have really enjoyed them. The cliche ‘write about what you know’ has a lot of truth to it. I certainly will continue to write autobiographically but I will not be writing a memoir. That is a promise.”

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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