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Big Books Feature

Speak, Memory

Bashed By Oprah and Other Tales From the Memoir Trade

Emily Flake

Big Books Issue 2001

Next of Kin Rick Bragg Gives His Family Tree Another Shake in Ava's Man | By Frank Diller

Speak, Memory Bashed By Oprah and Other Tales From the Memoir Trade | By Wendy Ward

The Little Girls Understand . . . Perhaps little girls are behind the popularity of memoirs. Long before the American Girls books, bef...

First Persons A Sampling of the Best Modern Memoirs

I'm With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie Better than the recent ego-stoked memoirs of the musicians she aspired to, uhh, know, "Miss Pamela"'... | By Stacey Mink

Goodbye to All That First published in 1929, this memoir by the poet and novelist (I, Claudius) remains the most immedia... | By Mahinder Kingra

Autobiography of a Face Poet Lucy Grealy survived cancer and wrote a book about it, like other fortunate hundreds before and... | By Lee Gardner

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica Though dirt poor and living in total obscurity when she died in 1960, Zora Neale Hurston had spent d... | By Afefe Tyehimba

An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness Kay Redfield Jamison undertook to write about her personal experiences with manic depression after s... | By Eileen Murphy

Survival in Auschwitz: The Nazi Assault on Humanity Primo Levi's memoir of his 10 months in Auschwitz is a masterpiece of Holocaust literature--not simp... | By Sandy Asirvatham

Harpo Speaks! Whether Harpo Marx's 1961 autobiography qualifies as a memoir is open to question, given that there'... | By Adele Marley

Angela's Ashes: A Memoir Frank McCourt was born in Brooklyn in 1930, but his parents reversed the usual Irish-American immigr... | By Heather Joslyn

Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness At the start of this Memoir of Madness, novelist William Styron is about to receive the prestigious ... | By Eileen Murphy

My Own Country: A Doctor's Story Born of Indian parents and raised in Ethiopia, Abraham Verghese could hardly find a place less his o... | By Eileen Murphy

By Wendy Ward | Posted 9/26/2001

Who hasn't stood in front of a crowded bookstore shelf and wondered, "How did all of these get published?" We at City Paper decided to focus our questioning minds on the many memoirs currently glutting the market. Who decides which memoirs make it to the marketplace? What forces are behind the decisions? We visited four links on the literary food chain--a creative-writing instructor, a literary agent, an editor, and an independent-bookstore owner--to get some sense of the philosophy behind what gets written, what gets published, and what makes it into the stores. We could have written our own book with all of their literary insights, useful information, and bibliophile humor, but we decided to let these experts speak for themselves.

Kendra Kopelke
Writer in Residence, University of Baltimore
"I don't know what the stories are my students need to tell, but that is what I direct them to--'What are the stories you need to tell?' 'What do you need to come to understand?' If you don't start there, your memoir is going to be very uninteresting, both to you and to someone else.

"It is so highly personal a form, so your voice on the page is critical. The way that you're speaking to me right now--translate that on the page, because it needs to feel like the writer is having an intimate conversation with the reader.

"So how do you distinguish your personality? I think one of the ways you do it is you read memoirs. You read good ones, and some of them kind of hit you. They direct you toward a voice in yourself, and it's going to be your strongest voice.

"You are the only one who can tell your story, so you have a huge responsibility to tell your story. There is nothing bigger than that, nothing harder. It seems so easy. Thank goodness it seems easy at first--otherwise you'd never do it, right? Why would you do it? It invites you in such an easy way . . . you just start and, before you know it, you are into something much more difficult, because you are trying to figure out what it meant. 'What did that [experience] mean to who I am?' And if you do a good job, it touches everybody."

Lynn Whittaker
Literary Agent, Graybill & English, Washington, D.C.
"For a [memoir] to have a chance of being marketable, the author has to have remembered that it's creative nonfiction. A good memoir is not just a relating of one person's story, but what I would call sort of a creative reinterpretation of that story in a way that gives it meaning. A lot of the memoirs that I see--that I don't take on--are written by authors who just described some part of their lives. . . . They haven't really delved into the meaning of that part of their lives."

"There [was] definitely a fashion over the past decade of dysfunctional-family stories because so many people have them. I would say that that's a subject matter and a focus that is not as popular now. People have really had enough of the dysfunctional-family stories, and that is the same I think with editors.

"I think the things that I'm looking for now are people's stories about something beyond the individual's own experience, so they are sort of part memoir and part something else. That something else might be a travel story or it might be a nature story or it might be a medical subject. But the person is using their own individual experience to open up a window into a different world.

"There have been people who have said, 'People are kind of tired of memoirs,' but I think they are tired of a particular kind of memoir. The other types of memoir are still very popular, and the potential subject matter is endless because people's experiences are endless."

Robin Desser
Senior Editor, Alfred A. Knopf, New York
"The thing about memoir is it can be as much about what you don't put in as what you do. And sometimes writers need to say more and sometimes they might need to say less. You have to feel your way through that if you're a writer, [or] if you're working with a writer [as an editor].

"[When] I edited Girl, Interrupted, it was so early. Then all those memoirs came out after that . . . some really important memoirs. But people were kind of encouraged [to write] every damn thing down, and there was just this glut of my-left-toe-was-really-hurting-me-so-I-want-to-write-about-that kind of books.

"I don't know what's going to happen now. At this moment, nobody knows anything about anything in terms of what people are going to be reading over the next however-long. Is memoir going to suffer or will memoir be more welcome? There has been an opening of a certain level of literary validity given to memoir because serious writers are doing it. Vladimir Nabokov wrote Speak, Memory, one of the great memoirs, a long time ago, but more literary people perhaps have either been encouraged to write in the form [recently] or just have, and that will probably continue."

Andy Ross
Owner, Cody's Books, Berkeley, Calif.
"We have different kinds of things that work. We sell modest amounts of literary and political memoirs--people seem to have an interest in those. The one thing I think is a kind of interesting is the Mary Karr phenomenon. She wrote The Liar's Club, and it's kind of this woman's personal growing-up memoir. After she wrote that and it was a big success, publishers started publishing a lot of things like that. I think most of them didn't work."

"The other kinds of book that I have are these academic, literary memoirs that somebody has been working on for 20 years. Those are important, [though] I'll maybe only sell four or five copies. Lately I've been selling more, for some reason . . . and I like them. They're not real big, just important.

"I find [memoir is] a difficult section to order for because a lot of them don't sell. Some of them are good, and they still don't sell. It's kind of like fiction by authors who don't have a name brand--also very difficult for me to order. I just don't know what's going to make it. Some of it is a result of reviews, and I don't know what's going to get reviewed. At this point, the publishers are just bashing me over the head with Oprah--everybody is going to be on Oprah, and I know it isn't going to happen, although Oprah is pretty good at selling books. I'm really getting bashed over the head with Oprah, that is about the only way I can describe it."

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