The Power of a Personal Tale MEMOIRS CAPTURE READERS

By Marilyn Gardner, writer of The Christian Science Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, April 1, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Power of a Personal Tale MEMOIRS CAPTURE READERS


Marilyn Gardner, writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


CALL it the Year of the Memoir - a season of self-disclosure, a celebration of the first-person-singular, a time when readers and writers are turning what Walt Whitman called a "song of myself" into a hot literary genre.

This spring, publishers' lists feature a record number of memoirs - at least 40 by one industry count. Add other first-person voices - autobiographies, diaries, letters - and the number nearly quadruples.

At the same time, colleges are reporting burgeoning interest in courses on reading and writing memoirs. And adult-education classes on the subject are attracting neophyte writers eager to record their own experiences. "A good memoir tells a story in a very compelling way," says Janet Silver, a senior editor at Houghton Mifflin, whose list includes six memoirs. "People are hungry for good stories. That can be irrestistible." Literary professionals also offer other explanations for the popularity of these intensely personal narratives, whose subjects range from celebrity confessionals to political memoirs, from tear-stained accounts of family tragedies to lyrical evocations of self-discovery. Some see the interest, in part, as an outgrowth of tell-all talk shows. Others point to an impersonalization of society that creates a yearning for connection and humanity. "There's an intimacy about memoirs," says Susan Petersen, executive vice president of the Putnam Publishing Group. "In the world today, people are feeling isolated. Even though we can communicate very speedily by e-mail, that doesn't carry with it a feeling that the human being is with you. The need to make contact with people is growing at the same time that it's actually getting harder to do." Caroline Mohyde, a literary agent with the Doe Coover Agency in Medford, Mass., says, "It almost reassures us to read about people's lives that are worse than our own. If you think your own life is troubled, it puts it in perspective. If you think your own life is boring, it's a way to live vicariously without getting yourself in trouble." An American genre Jonathan Middlebrook, a professor of English at San Francisco State University, sees the memoir as a particularly American genre. "The habit of self-scrutiny to find out if one is saved or damned was the start of Yankee writing," Professor Middlebrook says. Referring to Jonathan Edwards and Cotton Mather, he explains, "They developed the habit of noticing with very great precision the states of their souls. In the case of Edwards, it goes both ways. He's always looking inward to himself, but very quickly he looks outward, examining the world for signs of God's favor. These days we're less inclined to say God, but the intensity of the writing is the same." Today, Middlebrook continues, "We somewhat too glibly say that our institutions are all failing us. We become interested in finding out who we are, since there's nothing else to support us. We're at once free and at sea. Language well used helps to give us a sense of who we are." That search for identity is becoming increasingly diverse, according to Ms. Silver. Through memoirs, she says, the publishing industry "has opened up to all kinds of voices that weren't heard before. Women, minorities, and people from other cultures are being given a hearing." One of those minority voices this spring belongs to James McBride, author of "The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother." During a recent publicity tour, Mr. McBride observed that the book "seemed to be a catharsis for a lot of readers. Oftentimes the readings would become not so much question-and-answer sessions but almost like counseling sessions, where people stood up and said, 'I had an experience like that too.

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