In 2015, I interviewed Mary Karr, the godmother of modern memoir, shortly after she had released The Art of Memoir. Just a couple weeks before our interview, she’d told Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air that she felt an obligation to defend the genre.
When I asked Karr why, she said, in her wry, hilarious way, that “it’s trashy, ghetto-ass primitive—anyone who’s lived can write one.” And she means these words, spoken in her East Texas accent, in the very best way: this is what makes the genre special to her.
Memoir’s accessibility to anyone who’s lived is also what makes the genre so popular, as well as so open to scorn. That the stories are true makes it compelling; it also opens the floodgates for criticism of authors—criticism of the words they use, the overall work, or the choices, behaviors, and lived experiences described within.
Memoir programming is increasingly popular at writers’ conferences. The National Association of Memoir Writers, founded by Linda Joy Myers in 2007, has seen its membership double in the past several years. Because I teach memoir classes online and at writers conferences, I see that my classes and those of other teachers I know are more sought out than ever.
There’s much speculation about what’s driving the memoir trend—our confessional culture being the primary thing people point to. Karr said in that same interview that, as early as the 1970s, memoir was the province of weirdos. Now all of us put our lives on display every single day on social media.
Though there are noteworthy memoirs prior to the 1990s, the genre received increasing attention then, with many memoirs receiving critical acclaim and becoming bestsellers, including Mary Brave Bird’s Lakota Woman (1990), Karr’s The Liars’ Club (1995), Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), Caroline Kapp’s Drinking: A Love Story (1997), and others. Since then, memoir has had a complicated relationship with the publishing industry. If an author has a strong platform and a compelling voice, agents and editors can get very excited about his or her memoir. Certain memoirs get all the hype their fiction counterparts get and more—because the work is true, because there’s a story behind the story. But memoirists with no platform or writers with stories deemed “done” (such as coming-of-age memoirs about growing up in dysfunctional homes, abuse memoirs, or addiction memoirs) will likely experience a cold-shoulder response from the agents and editors they pitch to.
No matter what, the writing stands on its own, but I’ve seen many agents and editors at conferences dismiss memoirists out of hand. I imagine this comes from agents and editors having had too many negative experiences with writers pitching them manuscript ideas that have no driving concept—books that are about the writer’s whole life, rather than what memoir is supposed to be: a slice of life, ideally held together by a concept or a theme.
The industry isn’t helping to support this definition of memoir, though—not with Michelle Obama’s Becoming being touted as the bestselling memoir of all time. I’m pleased for her because I read the book and loved it, but by definition it’s an autobiography, not a memoir, for the simple reason that it’s a book about her whole life.
Writers who aspire to make it big as memoirists need to understand that the industry is obsessed with author platform: without one, the likelihood of landing a book deal for a memoir is abysmally low. Stephanie Land’s Maid sprung from an essay she wrote for Vox that went viral. Chanel Miller published Know My Name after the impact of the public statement she wrote about sexual assault was felt across the country—and possibly around the world.
The other two factors that matter are voice and concept—the former being difficult to evaluate objectively, and the latter being subject to industry trends. Voice is how a writer writes, and because memoir is democratic in nature, a lot of aspiring memoirists haven’t put in the work required to wow, ending up with good but sometimes pedestrian memoirs. Concept is what a book is about, what holds it together, and the aforementioned saturation issue is a real barrier to memoirists who have dreams of publishing traditionally.
Memoirs are increasingly being published by authors who, after experiencing pushback or lackluster responses from agents and editors, take matters into their own hands, or authors who never had aspirations to publish traditionally in the first place. Writers of memoir publish their books for reasons that go beyond needing to make money, desiring clout, or wanting their memoir to launch their writing career. Most memoirists I work with write their memoirs because they must. It’s about self-expression, being heard, and being seen—creating from the heart and intellect the ultimate hard evidence of a life lived in all its messiness and beauty. Memoir can help with healing, providing the opportunity to reclaim a story, especially for writers who had no voice as children or who had parts of their lives stolen by abusers or perpetrators.
My prediction is that memoir will continue to surge. Books such as Karr’s The Art of Memoir, written in response to the lack of canonical literature on memoir as a form, help make the genre less ghetto-ass. But the truth is that its status as outsider art is what keeps memoir real: it’s an outsider art that writers are eager to learn and proud to produce—and, importantly, one that readers who don’t give a hoot about industry trends love to consume.
Brooke Warner is publisher of She Writes Press and SparkPress, a TEDx speaker, writing coach, and the author of Write On, Sisters! and Green-Light Your Book.