Memoirs, an old-fashioned literary genre, do seem to have come back in vogue in recent years. However, while those of decades past recounted the lives and achievements of people already well-known from the arts, sports, politics and business, now we can read about people we had never before heard of.
One major factor in this growth in the genre has probably been the profusion of weblogs. These often centre on routine and mundane personal experience, like diaries used to. Another factor might be the continued popularity of “reality TV” documentaries where ordinary people’s daily lives are given a singular attention and status. After all, memoirs are relatively easy to write, being a development of the essays on personal experience which everyone had some competence and practice in writing from school.
However, one rather alarming aspect about many of these recent memoirs is that they describe lives of violence, abuse, illness, addiction and suffering, and frequently with a sexual element. It does suggest that modern audiences have developed a particular voracious and gruesome appetite for accounts of other people’s sufferings. As observed by Shirley Showalter, Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It in 1995 seemed to be the progenitor of this trend. Even the less lurid and horrible stories still seem to feature sustained pain and hardship before they lead eventually to some reconciliation and success and happiness, a process which, it goes without saying, will allow a journalist or broadcaster to describe the book as “inspiring” or “life-enhancing”.
Human beings have always loved stories of difficulties overcome and enemies defeated, so I suppose it is not surprising that these elements feature strongly in modern memoirs. Even if, in the lives of successful celebrities, you sometimes feel as if the writer had to work quite hard to find enough of those examples of hardship and challenge to attract the ordinary reader.
While the lives of famous people have always been useful for newspaper and magazine serialisations, now these, joined with the tales of ordinary folk, seem also to fill endless hours of BBC Radio 4, and to allow interview opportunities on any number of other radio and TV programme. Their particular value is for book festivals, fitting in with our endless appetite for all celebrity, or for any secrets. At this point, in case I become too superior or judgemental, I have to recognise and accept the role played in this development by the long-established TV format of chat shows, something I have enjoyed since childhood – at least, as long as they featured interesting writers, actors, film-makers, musicians and artists.
As memoirs have become more popular, another literature and publishing genre that I grew up with, collected letters, has definitely become less so. Understandably perhaps: hardly anybody writes letters nowadays, and people of note have long had plenty of other ways to record their ideas and achievements. Personally, I had never made a habit of reading collections of letters, but I certainly could see they have been an essential primary source in any worthwhile biography or history. It is memoirs which seem to some extent to have replaced collected letters in the publishers’ non-fiction repertoire.
Shirley Showalter also proffers the theory that the increase in writing and reading memoirs may be because many find it a useful therapy in stressful times. That certainly sounds plausible – and is certainly a more attractive notion than the alternative that more of us have become more ghoulishly and sadistically drawn to suffering and violence.