At this point, we probably know more about what a memoir is not -
it's not a multicultural tear-jerker about a dying son ("The Blood
Runs Like a River Through My Dreams," by Nasdijj), an Oprah-
approved tale of rehab and regret ("A Million Little Pieces," by
James Frey), or an apple-chucking holocaust romance ("Angel at the
Fence," by Herman Rosenblat) - than what a memoir is. So it seems
like the perfect time for Ben Yagoda's new book, the interesting but
uneven Memoir: A History.
In a short "Author's Note," Yagoda defines memoir as "a book
understood by its author, its publisher, and its readers to be a
factual account of the author's life." Over the next 11 chapters, he
surveys not only memoir's failures - it has averaged "a scandal a
year" since 1960 - but also its many successes.
But first, Yagoda details our own memoir-crazed moment. Between
2004 and 2008, the genre's sales have jumped 400 percent; we now
find father-son sets writing dueling memoirs and releasing them
within a week of each other. Anecdotes like this offer a sort of
rubbernecking appeal - if this isn't bubble behavior, I don't know
what is - but Yagoda wants to prove that even they have a history:
"Every single one of the books, and every piece of the debate about
them, had a historical precedent."
With his strategy set, Yagoda goes back to the beginning. He
moves at a Greatest Hits clip, bouncing from Abelard to Margery of
Kempe. It all feels a little dry, and Yagoda seems to sense this,
often straining for an anachronistic joke. About Pope Pius II, who
immediately follows Dame Margery, Yagoda observes "his tendency -
common to so many politicians and chief executives - to make himself
the hero of every story"; in the very next paragraph, on the pope's
candor, Yagoda quips that "no American president has dished such
dirt." Such asides become only more irksome when Yagoda falls into a
pattern - a paragraph or two per luminary, with a short historical
argument or idea every 10th page.
Thankfully, these criticisms apply only to the first 100 pages.
After that, everything - even the hokey tone - improves, as Yagoda
switches from mere summaries to context and analysis. He traces, for
example, how Mark Twain, Ulysses Grant, and P.T. Barnum are
"emblematic of a sea change in the kinds of Americans who were
inspired to write their autobiographies." The numbers back him up:
Memoirs by "Entertainers" increased from 1 percent of the genre's
output in the 1900s to 14 percent in the '60s - the same decade,
incidentally, when "Entertainers" overtook "Clergy/Religious" as
memoir's most popular subcategory.
It's easy to connect this to the bookshelves of today, when
Michael Phelps's book can be "written, typeset, bound, and on the
shelves within four months after he was handed his final Olympic
gold medal. …