"Europeans don't buy memoirs," I was told on my first trip to Frankfurt and reminded on every subsequent trip to Frankfurt and London book fairs. I asked why and got a series of answers none of which added up. "We're narcissists too," one French publisher told me, "Just not as much as Americans." I've given this some thought. Are memoirs an odd little subset of the American literary canon that Europeans just can't be interested in?
In fact, there are a number of great literary memoirs that have been published in other countries. Mary Karr, Vladimir Nabokov, Toi Derricotte, William Styron, Tobias Wolff, Alison Bechdel and Maxine Hong Kingston, to name a few. "You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you." That's the opening line of Woman Warrior, partly memoir, partly myth. What Maxine Hong Kingston accomplished in this memoir, which has been translated into more than twenty languages, was to spin the personal into the collective, to discuss mothers and daughters, silencing and language, colonization that continues into the new world. She did what memoirists should do, wrote very well about her own life in a way that echoed into the lives of millions. That book made me want to want to light out for the territories, do something big, become a writer.
Confession is nothing new. Most people have experienced the thrill of leaning in to whisper a secret. Telling a secret about someone else is easier than telling one about yourself. But once you tell a secret about yourself it gets easier. Ask anyone who's ever been to confession.
Look at Facebook. Americans post stuff on FB that nobody should be telling anyone let alone posting on the internet. We post personal stuff, bathroom stuff, drug confessions, weird obsessions, dirty deeds, secret desires. Americans want attention and will do anything to get it.
The memoir problem is this: Unless reading your book is going to change your readers' experience of themselves and the world, it isn't worth writing. If what you're going to tell me is that your kids were born with some kind of problem, that's not a book in itself. Your parents weren't nice to you? Not a book. Your parents suffered from dementia, then died? Not a book. Any of these could be great books in the hands of a skillful writer, but just having those things happen to you is not worth a book. We've all suffered. In almost every family, there is one crazy person. Some families are blessed with several. Ask yourself if your book is going to change the world.
Good books are written from a deep connection to the life of the imagination and a serious attention to craft. They also tell a good story. One question worth asking is whether your life is really a good story or a series of happenings. Did you make anything happen or did stuff happen to you? In a good story, the characters set something in motion; they act on the world and on each other. There are twists and turns. Unexpected events. Many of the memoirs that are submitted for publication lack these qualities.
We continue to publish a couple each year that we feel fall really resonate. This fall it's Paul Cummins, Confessions of a Headmaster about the founding of Crossroads School. When Paul explains to one parent that he can't give his daughter weed to sell at school, the dad argues that he wants his daughter to have quality weed. Paul reminds him that it's illegal and George Carlin kindly agrees that no weed at school is probably best. It's a book about a subject that concerns parents in urban areas, why public schools for the most part no longer provide our kids with a good education. I don't expect the Europeans to buy it, but I'm interested in personal stories that resonate out into the larger world.
I love good memoirs and so does the American reading public. Think about yours before you write it. Writing a book takes a long time. Make sure you've got a great story that's going to blow your readers' skirts up.
Kate Gale is the author of the memoir, On the Eighth Day God Created Horses about growing up in a brutal Christian cult in Southern New Hampshire until she was eighteen. It is making the rounds of New York publishing houses. The last line of the book is, "If you cannot be a hero in your own life, whose life are you waiting for?"
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