Memoir is supposedly the most popular literary genre these days, at least after novels about teenage girls in love with vampires, but why? The answer is easy when the question is why memoirs are popular with writers. Everybody thinks his life has been interesting, and, as they say, write what you know. The question that’s more difficult to answer is why do people read memoirs by authors who are not already famous? Former president George W. Bush whose memoir, Decision Points, was a recent bestseller, and rock and roll legend Keith Richards who also had a hit memoir in 2010, have stories that are already well-known. Their memoirs give readers the story straight from the source. But why do people read memoirs by the likes of Augustus Burroughs or James Frey whose stories, not always true, are ones of dysfunction involving drug, alcohol, or child abuse?
The literary agents interviewed in the July/August 2010 issue of Writer’s Digest claim not to be interested in such books. “I’m sick of dysfunctional family stories,” says Mollie Glick of Foundry Literary and Media. Sharlene Martin of Martin Literary Management thinks that “every therapist in the country who is dealing with addicts of one kind or another has told them to journal their recovery and then turn it into a book.” But somebody is selling these books to publishers and somebody is reading them because tales of dysfunction dominate the memoir genre. What do these agents look for in a memoir?
Laney Katz Baker wants “a fresh story, told in a unique voice. I want the writer’s personality to ooze through the pages. I expect the writing to come to life.” Byrd Leavell wants “Aggressive, confident, well-written prose. . . “
The problem I have with their advice is that it doesn’t describe most of the books already out there, most of which do not make me want to turn the page. They make me want to put the book down and turn on the TV instead. Repeatedly, these agents speak of how desirable it is to represent a writer with a “platform,” a ready made shortcut to promoting their book. “An Internet presence is very helpful,” says Jeff Kleinman of foliolit.com. “If you have 300,000 followers, you’ll find it much easier to get a book deal than if you have three.” Leavell recommends that writers “Put great content up on a website, and then find a way to start drawing people to read it. It’s no secret that publishers want writers who are adept at creating fans. Prove that you are one of them.”
These are “experts,” of course, so perhaps I’m an arrogant fool to challenge them, but if a writer has great content on a website that people can read free of charge, why would anyone buy that writer’s book? The advice these agents give makes it clear that their interest is in books that sell. Less important is the quality, unless you believe Mollie Glick who says, “If you’ve got an amazing story to tell and you write well, that’s enough for me.”
Writer’s Digest may not be the most trustworthy source for information, anyway. Its pages are filled with ads for MFA programs, print-on-demand publishers, writers workshops, and manuscript coaches. But who is teaching the Master’s level course in Creative Writing? Writers who can’t make a living writing, that’s who. The same is true of the writers teaching in community colleges. And who, other than a writer struggling to survive, offers his editing or ghostwriting services to writers with less experience? And yet, they must be successful if they can afford display ads in the back pages of a popular magazine. Robert McKee is successful, too, holding seminars on how to write a screenplay despite having only one professional credit of his own on IMDb: an episode of Murder, She Wrote. The world is full of hucksters who know the truth of P.T. Barnum’s statement that there’s a sucker born every minute. These days, most of those suckers are writing books.
© 2012 Brian W. Fairbanks
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