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The Memoir Dilemma: What's With All These Memoirs?

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Memoir is an explosive cultural phenomenon. According to Neilsen Bookscan, which tracks about seventy percent of U.S. book sales, total sales of memoirs increased four hundred percent between 2004-2008. In 2007 and 2008, in England, seven of the top ten best selling hard covers were memoirs.

All this success, which shows no sign of wavering, begs the question: what's with all these memoirs?

In a posting on the Daily Beast, Taylor Antrim, author of the novel The Headmaster Ritual, not only asks this question but also asks, "Are they [memoirs] somehow... easier?" Antrim pokes a literary sword at two new memoirs, Happy by Alex Lemon and The Ticking is the Bomb by Nick Flynn, suggesting that all memoir writing -- including the writing in these two books -- is cheating: "Too often, memoir seems to me an excuse to be fragmentary, incomplete, narratively non-rigorous." What he's saying ultimately is, "Why don't these guys just write novels instead?"

First, as a four-time memoirist, these books are not easy to write and certainly not "easier" than a novel. I can say this because I have also written three novels and did so in order to take a holiday from the emotional rigors of memoir writing.

Mary Karr, author of three memoirs, including the recent Lit, concurs. In The Paris Review, Karr was asked if writing The Liars' Club was difficult. "Awful," Karr said. "The emotional stakes a memoirist bets with could not be higher, and it's physically enervating. I nap on a daily basis like a cross-country trucker."

The suggestion that memoir be something it is not, that is, fiction instead, isn't novel. Since the emergence of the genre, there have also been heated debates that demand memoir be classified as journalism or even autobiography. Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History, is contemptuous of memoir for its lack of what he calls accountability; he insists on interchanging "memoir" with "autobiography" as a way to support his conclusion: "The past four decades will probably be remembered as the golden age of autobiographical fraud." Over at The New York Times, Neil Genzlinger goes so far as to instruct writer's to stop penning memoirs altogether unless they have earned the right, "by accomplishing something noteworthy or having an extremely unusual experience or being such a brilliant writer that you can turn relatively ordinary occurrences into a snapshot of a broader historical moment."

Memoir has been called misleading, fraudulent, over-sharing, narratively non-rigorous and too easy to write and still, the stunning success of the genre and its ongoing rise in the marketplace and in the hearts of readers means this renegade genre isn't going away. As Genzlinger points out, type in the term "memoir" to a search on Amazon and you'll find, "40,000 hits, or 60,000, or 160,000, depending on how you execute it."

Rather than wondering "What's with all the memoirs?" we might make peace with the genre and ask, "What is memoir and how are we to read it?"

Michael Gladwell of the New Yorker says it nicely:

Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.

From my view, memoir is, most simply stated, memory. It is a given that memory isn't factual or accurate, nor should anyone claim it to be. We all know the debate of the six people who witnessed the same car accident and had differing versions. Memory is personal to the perceiver and to explore memory -- in the form of memoir writing -- is to explore a personal truth of perception.

Life in a memoir is not like life in a novel. Life in memoir is real life (or as real as the writer can attempt to tell). Like life, memoir cannot be expected to hold itself together with the same literary connective tissue as that applied in a novel. Life, at its most true expression, is a series of fragments, moments, memories, dreams, perceptions, lies and stabs at truth. More, life is a gathering of experience, from which we glean our deepest wisdoms about how to be alive. Memoir writing about life is the active process of separating the slag from the gold, which the reader gets to witness -- if they are paying attention.

In The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick writes:

What happened to the writer isn't what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

One reads and absorbs memoir -- not as a fiction aficionado or with a jaded eye that's ready to spot distortions of truth -- but with a feeling state that, if the memoirist is doing her job, has the reader struggling too. Memoir is a form of writing that takes the narrator deep into the interior of the soul and has that narrator (and thus the reader by voyeuristic association) emerge changed by that struggle.

Memoir is meatier than a novel when considered in this raw light. Memoir is, at its best, the heroic journey of a writer courageous enough to walk, fall and even crawl toward understanding on the page.

Jennifer Lauck is the author of four memoirs, including: Found: A Memoir, the true sequel to Blackbird with Seal Press and the New York Times Bestseller Blackbird, Still Waters and , Show Me the Way. She is a former investigative journalist, speaker, and writing teacher and can be found at her website, Jennifer Lauck.com.