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A Raging Case of Memoiritis

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At the publishing company where I work, we see a lot of book proposals -- everything from vegan cookbooks to World War II histories to oral biographies of rock bands. We also see a lot of proposals for memoirs. Some of them are by celebrities, and while they tend not to be my personal cup of tea I can certainly see their merit -- meaning, I can easily imagine a reader for them. But the proposals that puzzle me -- the ones I see a lot of and simply do not "get" -- are by people I've never heard of who have never done anything exceptional.

I know, I know. It sounds harsh. And I really don't mean for it to. It's just that I happen to hold the belief that, before writing a memoir, someone should actually do something that's memoir-worthy -- something spectacular, something unique; something that defied expectations or somehow beat the odds.

For example, the first book I ever acquired for publication, A Chant to Soothe Wild Elephants, chronicled the experience of a half-Thai American man who left college in New England to go be a Buddhist monk for a rain season in his mother's native village of Panomsarakram. Gorgeous prose aside, it caught my attention because, well, how many people do you know who have done such a thing?

One of the other things that made me want to sign that book was the author's ability to write about his time in Thailand in a reflection-rich way -- in a way that provided insight into what it's like to feel part of two cultures yet never wholly part of either. Which brings me to my second point: A mere chronicle of the author's experience is rarely enough for a memoir to succeed. Readers need a reason to care, and if the author isn't a household name then the author's ability to provide perspective is what becomes key.

In fact, every once in awhile a book provides so much perspective that the author's "normal" life becomes a plus rather than a minus. I'm talking about books like Kelly Corrigan's The Middle Place -- a funny, sad, sweet little book where nothing really happens and yet everything important seems to. It captures so beautifully that time in your life when you're buffered on both sides by family -- by your children and your parents. Corrigan's ability to understand her own life -- and her ability to appreciate it -- makes it stand out from other books in the genre. It's all about her and her family, yet it's the antithesis of the self-indulgent memoir that seems to be permeating bookstores these days. Call it, and others like it, the antidote to the raging case of memoiritis that seems to be sweeping the nation -- or at least the country's MFA programs.

What memoirs have you enjoyed recently, and why?