The memoir market is booming, but as Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the January 25th New Yorker article But Enough About Me: What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves? this is not a new phenomena. (The article is a review of Ben Yagoda’s “fact-packed but not terribly searching” book Memoir: A History.) We’ve gone through several phases of memoir floods in the literary market and it all started with St. Augustine stealing a pear in 371 AD. Mendelsohn writes:
However trivial the crime and perverse its motivation, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore.
Every memoir boom time (religious leaders confessions, slave narratives, holocaust survivor tales) has also had its share of fake memoirs and the corresponding scandals. In other words, not only are Frey, Defonseca, and Rosenblat phonies, they are unoriginal phonies following the footsteps of American pilgrims writing fake accounts of survival in the wilderness and white Harvard graduates telling fake slave narratives.
So why do authors fake a memoir or some parts of it? Frey said he did it because he wanted his book to have tension and dramatic arcs. Mendelsohn proposes that it’s because authors have trouble distinguishing their truth—or the truth of the character they created on the page—with the objective truth. My own personal opinion is that it comes down to money and the yearning for fame. Why else would someone lay their lives bare and risk being barred from all future family reunions (Check out our own Jaime Wood’s excellent blog Memoir as Self Mutilation on this topic.)
A more interesting question that Mendelsohn asks (and answers) is what caused the current boom in memoirs and the current, seemingly stronger, anger over the phonies. He proposes that talk shows like Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael helped pave the way not just for Oprah Winfrey, but also for our obsession with “real” people’s written life story. Mendelsohn thinks that much of the outrage directed at authors and publishers of fake memoirs “represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions.” He counts Reality TV, people talking loudly on cell phones, and bloggers as part of that “plethora.”
What do you think? Are we bombarded by too much information (TMI) about other people’s lives? Are we as bloggers contributing to the “new anxiety” that Mendelsohn mentions?
For an excellent and short (14 minutes) interview with Mendehsohn, check out this New Yorker Out Loud podcast.