The changing face of modern memoirs

2009-11-07 00:00

CANBERRA — In his memoir, Andre Agassi has admitted to using crystal meth. Irish hurling star Donal Og Cusack came out in his recent autobiography. Sarah Palin’s autobiography became a best-seller before its release.

Dishing some dirt has become the recent trend in the memoirs that overflow bookstores, with politicians, celebrities, people living an odd life for a year, and even animals racing to share their lives with others.

Writer Ben Yagoda, a journalism professor from the University of Delaware who has just published Memoir: A History, said such candour was not always the case in autobiographies, but memoirs do reflect the cultural zeitgeist.

Yagoda says there is one thing about me­moirs that has to stay constant for the genre to retain its popularity — the truth.

Q: What is the fascination with me­moirs?

A: “People are interested in themselves, so it is not surprising people want to tell their own story. The move to put it in covers goes beyond talking at a dinner party. But the question ‘why should readers who don’t know us be interested in our story?’ is the big question.”

Q: Are there more memoirs coming out now?

A: “It [a memoir] is, in a large part, a publishing marketing phenomenon. People write their memoir, then get booked for talk show appearan­ces. It all sounds very synergistic but, in truth, a lot of these books don’t sell well.”

Q: What does work? Sarah Palin’s memoir, for instance, became a best-seller through advance sales.

A: “People are often not responding to the book. She is a person in whom people are interested, so the memoir is a tangible. Who knows how many people who buy it will actually read it … It is kind of an emblem of that person.”

Q: Are celebrity memoirs new?

A: “No. In the 19th century, prominent people and statesmen would write their memoirs … in those early days a memoir was expec­ted to be a whitewashed, sanitised version of their life. Now there is an expectation of dishing some dirt and candour and gossip.”

Q: Some memoirs have been unveiled as fabrications such as James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. Does it matter?

A: “It does matter. A great deal of the popularity of the memoir … is the feel that this is a true story and that carries a lot of weight and a lot of power with it. James Frey had written his book and tried to sell it as a novel and was unsuccessful, but as soon as he said it was true it sold and Oprah [Winfrey] picked it up.” - Reuters.


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