when too many memoirs are barely enough

by |November 26, 2009

In case you hadn’t realised it, Christmas is seriously just around the corner, and the annual buy-fest has well and truly started. And if there is one genre of books that are moving for us here at Booktopia, it is the autobiography. Readers are spoiled for choice – Dame Edna, Ray Martin, Harry MAndre Agassi, to name just a few.

There is a school of thought however that reckons that we have mined the memoir genre almost to exhaustion. The chief proponent of this theory is Ben Yagoda, English and journalism teacher, author, blogger and critic-extraordinaire. He has been pushing this for a number of years, most recently in a very funny and cogently argued piece in The Daily Beast. For this he draws heavily on Memoir: A History, which he has just published.

“After weeks of wall-to-wall for Palin, Agassi and Carrie Prejean, it is clear our narcissistic culture is obsessed with memoirs”, he writes.

“I’ve gotten the lowdown on new or forthcoming autobiographical works by Andre Agassi, Sarah Palin, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Mary Karr, George Carlin, Paul Shaffer, Clarence “Big Man” Clemons, David Plouffe, Andy Williams, Coach Roy Williams, Michael Chabon, former French President Jacques Chirac, former NBC head Warren Littlefield, Tracy Morgan, Hulk Hogan, Valerie Bertinelli, Anne Murray, Wyclef Jean, former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, Full House’s Jodie Sweetin, American Idol’s David Archuleta, Duane “Dog the Bounty Hunter” Chapman, Mary Weiland (estranged wife of the Stone Temple Pilots’ Scott Weiland), and actor Jerry O’Connell, Rebecca Romjin’s husband, who is coming out with a parenting memoir called Cry, Feed, (Make Love to Wife), Burp. (For the sake of convenience, I put those names roughly in order of prominence—and of course apologize to anyone who feels offended, especially Monsieur Chirac.)

“All that being said, the memoir boom is finally quieting down a little bit.

“The main reason for the ebbing of the memoir tide is ecological; we are running out of good true stories. Every stunt worth undertaking has been undertaken; every disease worth chronicling has been chronicled. As for memoirs of difficult childhoods, the bar of difficulty, steadily raised for a couple of decades, was probably propelled beyond any author’s grasp by The Glass Castle, Walls’ riveting account of her Looney Tunes parents.

“A similar depletion can be observed over on the celebrity front. There will of course continue to be interest in bigfoot memoirs from the Agassis, Kennedys, and Palins of the world, but otherwise it is becoming evident that the bottom of the barrel is being scraped. After Prejean, Sweetin, Archuleta, Weiland, and O’Connell, who could possibly be left?”

In the meantime however, if you are still game to go back into the water, here are his top 5 picks, memoirs that you should read, memoirs  of people that are genuinely interesting.

Roughing It by Mark Twain (1872) – His account of six years in Nevada, San Francisco and the Sandwich Islands is among his least-known books, but it is a comic gem.

Memoirs by John Addington Symonds (written 1889-1893, published 1986). Symonds, an English scholar, was gay and sexually active, and his no-holds-barred memoir could not be published in his lifetime. It’s fascinating to chart the change in his attitude: from a rueful sense of himself as a deviant to a sort of defiant pride.

I’ll Cry Tomorrow by Lillian Roth (1954). Roth, a former Ziegfeld showgirl and early-talkies actress (she was in the Marx Brothers’ Animal Crackers), created a sensation because of the frankness with which it depicted her alcoholism and abuse by husbands and lovers. In some ways, it created the template for the contemporary memoir, with its emphasis on trauma and recovery.

Growing Up by Russell Baker (1982) and An American Childhood by Annie Dillard (1987). They’re luminous and could easily trade titles, though Baker spends more time on the public realm and Dillard on the private.

(Sorry I can’t link you to Memoirs or I’ll Cry Tomorrow. They are both sadly out of print).

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