Memoir is to contemporary reading as reality TV is to contemporary television. Neither the publishing industry nor the television industry can survive without them. The difference between the two trends, however, is quality. While it is generally agreed that reality TV will never rise to the level of good, series television, memoir at its best can be as good as the best fiction. And yet, more often than not it isn’t.
That is why, as a reader, I don’t generally pick up a memoir nearly as often as I pick up a novel.
As an editor, however, I find myself acquiring memoirs like One of These Things First by Steven Gaines. What drew me to make this acquisition? When I read Gaines’ account of a suicide attempt at the age of fifteen that is subsequently followed by a stay in a psychiatric hospital populated by great personalities and celebrities, I kept thinking “no one else could have written this book. I’ve read nothing like this before.”
My taste in memoir is influenced by perhaps the greatest memoir ever written: Speak, Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, an account of the author’s childhood in Russia. The attention to detail in this book and the descriptions of Russia in the early years of the 20th century are remarkably vivid. I would attribute this to Nabokov’s photographic memory; he was also born a synesthesiac, a person who instinctively associates color to sound. Add to this the fact that, after writing nine novels in Russian, Nabokov began writing in an English idiosyncratically influenced by his native Russian.
Being a foreigner like Nabokov and living in a world whose language is not your original tongue is what lends originality to She Read to Us in the Late Afternoons, a memoir that we will publish in November. Kathleen Hill lived in Africa and in France as a teacher of English. During her stay, she read the literature native to each region, her reading experience distilled through her life experience. The last chapter of her book describes what many avid readers might consider the ultimate experience: the author read the six volumes of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past aloud to another writer whose failing sight made listening to literature the only option.
There are many memoirs published about alcohol and drug addiction, the complexities of marriage, unhappy childhoods. I tend to steer clear of these because the market is glutted with them. I believe it’s difficult to find a new perspective on subjects that have been written about so extensively. Novels that deal with these subjects are harder to sell and to me, this is the proof that the subjects, themselves are shopworn.
There is one memoir that I read again and again: A Guard Within by Sarah Ferguson, a long letter from a woman to her psychiatrist. What keeps me hooked in the plaintive voice of the author. A voice full of passion and pain and wholly unusual due to the fact that shortly after the author finished writing it, she committed suicide. Perhaps what makes this book so original is the author knew she was close to death but, unlike the memoirs of those dying from disease, she had the choice to keep living. Sad as this may sound, I find this memoir uplifting.
Good memoirs are, indeed out there; you just have to look a bit harder to find them. If you have a favorite memoir, tell us about it in a tweet: @delphbks
Also, consider following us on Twitter as we post items on books and authors that we feel are very interesting, educational, and enjoyable,