Publisher: Wilfrid Laurier University Press
Publication date: 4/1/2013
What is the fascination with memoir? The domain of salacious dirt and celebrity gossip? Are readers of memoir prone to suggestion from cultural bundlers like Oprah Winfrey? Mostly low-brow readers not the least bit interested in quality writing?
The first decade of the 21st century witnessed a boom in the publishing of memoir by both celebrities and relatively unknown people with something compelling to share about their lives. University of Alberta English professor Julie Rak notes how many found their way on bestseller lists, including the acclaimed A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers and the humorous Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris.
Rak brilliantly sheds light on a misunderstood genre and its aficionados in her recent book Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market. She writes that the sheer quantity and quality of memoirs during this boom “has created curiosity about its content, shock about its popularity, celebrations of its power and disgust at its excesses.”
“Why are so many of these stories produced and eagerly read today? Why are cultural pundits so suspicious of them? How can we understand the ways in which they are produced and received?”
Rak randomly chose the year 2003 and constructed a database of titles by HarperCollins and Random House. A list of memoirs were read by research assistants who identified plot, narrator, tone, the life story or background of the narrator and opening/closing scenes. Demographic information, back matter printed on the copies, cover design and publishing format for each title was recorded as well as whether the subject was famous or unknown.
Rak analyzed the titles to determine what publishers, booksellers and readers think about memoir. She was curious to know whether people read memoir for narcissistic reasons or to understand something about others and a larger community. What Rak found was nothing like claims from cultural critics that memoir is riddled with a focus on the self, too much victimization and issues of veracity.
She writes that the popularity of memoir post 9/11 showed how readers used authentic personal stories “to work out what citizenship was going to mean in the new world order.”
In her book, Rak analyzes the impact of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces on Oprah Winfrey Show audiences and how this compelling story of drug addiction, authenticity and transformation became associated with narrative fraud.
“Whether the topic is what to read, what to buy, or how to respond to an issue of the day, the Oprah Winfrey Show is the engine of an intimate public that aims to create belonging.”
Frey began work on his book in the form of a novel, but said in an interview with Larry King that he found success by changing the genre category of his book. Doubleday executive Nan Talese, who suggested the book be published as a memoir, argued that it might be read like a novel for its “higher truths” rather than for its factual accuracy.
According to Rak, members of the Oprah Book Club did not see memoir in this way. In January 2006, the website The Smoking Gun reported that Frey had exaggerated the conditions of his Ohio arrest, a pivotal event in the narrative of his memoir. The Smoking Gun discovered that Frey had not resisted arrest, while a mugshot revealed he had not been beaten as he had claimed in the book.
Frey had exaggerated other aspects of his arrest record and invented details about other events in the memoir. He initially denied the accusations and then appeared with his mother on Larry King Live. Oprah calling in to Larry King said “the underlying message of James Frey’s memoir still resonates with me.”
Then, Oprah had a change of heart and affirmed very publicly about the importance of trust.
Rak believed that the Oprah Winfrey Show episode where Frey and his publisher were castigated (have since received a public apology) was a missed opportunity to think critically about memoir as a genre. She writes that Oprah had glossed over the point of Frey’s memoir: to become authentic and healed in resistance to addiction narratives perpetuated by AA and the Twelve Step Program.
Oprah and her reading club audience remained ambivalent about memoir as a market commodity and a communal way for readers to empathize with the experiences of another.
Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market by Julie Rak is a highly worthwhile read and a compelling analysis of memoir in the first decade of the 21st century.
Category: Nonfiction, Writing