Three years into writing a memoir, a successful author told me, “Who cares what a 39-year-old divorcée has to say?” Based on that author’s professional experience and past knowledge of the publishing industry, this was sound advice. But I couldn’t reconcile her warning with the success of debut author Tara Westover’s Educated, which is currently one of the bestselling memoirs and has been read by prominent figures like Barack Obama and Bill Gates.
On October 6, the day Annie Ernaux won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I noticed another curious inconsistency. A writing mentor had texted to let me know a memoirist had won the prize, yet early reports by reputable news outlets called Ernaux a French novelist. As if that weren’t puzzling enough, one source made reference to her 20 novels about personal experiences like abortion and affairs. An evening television report even went so far as to describe her book Happening as a work about a woman’s abortion. There was no mention of it being the story of Ernaux’s own illegal abortion at 23, a fact anyone can read for themselves in the book’s description on Amazon or Ernaux’s publisher’s website.
Later coverage morphed into calling Ernaux a French author, or a French novelist and memoirist. Given the fast pace of news media, the initial omissions are understandable. Ernaux is known for blurring the boundary between memoir and fiction. I suspect Ernaux herself is quite pleased with being called simply a Nobel Prize winner. But as a memoir writer in a genre that has long struggled for legitimacy, I can’t help but insist we pause and acknowledge the intensely autobiographical nature of Ernaux’s work. And by “we” I’m referencing the pronouns Ernaux makes use of in her French bestseller The Years, where the personal is intimately wrapped up in the collective.
Who cares what a memoirist currently querying agents has to say about one of the world’s most prestigious prizes in literature? Might I suggest memoir is one of our most untapped resources for growth, both in publishing and in diversifying our knowledge of our fellow humans. One of the highest prizes in literature has honored the importance of an individual woman’s memories of her own sexual abuse, abortion, and affair—topics we’re often told make for whiny, boring, unoriginal stories. It’s time we give more credence to writers, especially those from marginalized backgrounds, who dare to show up and tell their own stories on their own terms. Who knows what kind of success the genre could achieve if the industry welcomed more stories from women, queer, Black and brown, and disabled folks? I’m part of that group myself and often wonder, what if we had access to the same resources and recognition literary fiction has long enjoyed?
Before I went to bed on October 6, I toasted Ernaux. In the face of regular, multiple rejections, a querying memoirist has to celebrate whatever one can. Ernaux’s win has given me the inspiration I need to continue doing my creative work and braving the query trenches. Perhaps what I’m feeling pales in comparison to what many women, trans men, and nonbinary people must be feeling in light of the news. Despite the inhospitable environment we find ourselves in for human reproductive rights, it matters that we keep going. Who would have thought one woman writing the story of one abortion could be so timely decades later?
Let’s not let this year’s announcement pass us by without realizing we’re living a moment that could powerfully change the literary landscape for memoir and the genre’s potential to move society forward.
Melissa Gopp-Warner is a creative nonfiction writer and is currently querying a memoir.