Oct 9, 2008

The Boundaries of Memoir

Memoir inhabits a nebulous place in the literary world.

In memoir, fact and fiction aren’t always black and white, emotional truth may not match historical truth and ethics and aesthetics often collide.

A few months ago I moderated a live roundtable discussion on the topic for Cascade magazine.

On the panel were three writer/professors from the University of Oregon, one who writes memoir, one who analyzes and writes autobiography and one who refuses to write memoir. The fraud memoirist and former UO student Peggy Seltzer (a.k.a. Margaret B. Jones) was the inspiration for the debate.

Here’s a link to the magazine where you can read highlights from the discussion and listen to some of the most interesting parts. [Photo info: Laurie Drummond, Gordon Sayre, David Bradley and me. Photos by Jack Liu.]

One thing is clear: Memoirs continue to be wildly popular. The “memoir craze,” as its called, is still going strong. Here are a few memoirs on the New York Times best seller list this week:

  • The Year of Living Biblically, by A. J. Jacobs, a memoir of his attempt to obey the Bible as literally as possible;
  • A Long Way Gone, by Ishmael Beah, about his life as a child soldier from Sierra Leone and his drug-crazed killing spree;
  • Through the Storm, by Lynne Spears, you can imagine what it’s about;
  • and don’t forget Stori Telling, the actress’s memoir.

We could argue whether the last two are actually memoirs. The label memoir usually implies that we’re going to learn part of the life story of a relative nobody. (And the fact that the Spelling book has been on the list for 18 weeks kind of freaks me out. How interesting could it actually be?)

The more memoirs that are published, the more dramatic they seem to be. Entertainment Weekly this summer put together a list of the types of lives captured in recent memoirs: A child of a woman who left the convent and assumed a false identity. A man who double dates with his recently widowed father. A woman who survived an unhealthy religious fixation (on top of having an eating disorder).

Every potential memoirist should check this list first to see if their life story has already been done. It’s a long (and quite hilarious) list.


Katie Dettman said...

This is great! I love that one of the tags for this post is "self-promotion." Great photos.

Katie Campbell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katie Campbell said...

Ha! I suppose I should have said "shameless self promotion."

That reminds me I should also have credited Jack Liu on the photos. I'll add that. Thanks for reading!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the post and this list! I've published one memoir and am in negotiations with another--and trust me, I'm not Tori Spelling! I believe that memoirs are an art form--as opposed to projectile vomiting on the page.
It's such a subtle tightrope--to be able to tell a part of your life, your journey, and for that to have universal appeal and insight. Tough and challenging.
~Carol O'Dell
Author of Mothering Mother

Katie Campbell said...

Carol, Thanks for reading/writing. Your memoir sounds very interesting (and like it's an actual memoir as opposed to the Spelling thing). Have you seen Lauren Kessler's most recent book "Dancing with Rose: Finding life in the land of Alzheimer's"?

Can you talk about your next project or point us to info on your website related to it? I'm interested. :)

Jodi said...

You could say Charlotte Bronte lied all over the place when she submitted her book to a publisher in 1846. The original title was "Jane Eyre: An Autobiography."

No one ever would have dreamed of holding a reckoning day for the author of this best seller.

Charlotte's modern-day defense would go something like this: "Well, I was a governess. And I did fall in love with an older man. And a pious clergyman did propose to me. It just didn't quite happen like it did in the book."

Victorian publishers and readers, it seems, saw the fake memoir as a benign form of deception that added zest to the story.

Though ... I confess, I can't say to what extent JE was marketed or presented as an actual biography.

Katie Campbell said...

Great observation, Jodi! I don't know if you had a chance to listen to the audio from the round table discussion I linked to, but Gordon Sayre read out loud four titles of "autobiographies" that couldn't possibly have been true. It was quite funny... Here's the link:
Scroll to the last 1/4 if you want to hear just that part.

audrey said...

I am an 81 year old blogger. Please take a look at my site on memoirs of my life: http://audreykaminski.blogspot.com/

I grew up in Baltimore with many happy memories. My old neighborhood in west Baltimore is too dangerous to walk through. There was a time when I thought I would never leave the city because of all it’s convenience. If you didn’t have a car you could ride a street car. Going down town was always a great pleasure. There were large Department stores, theaters and museums. Where I lived you could walk to the zoo, movie theater and a roller rink.


Katie Campbell said...

Thanks for reading, Audrey. I'll check out your blog today.

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