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
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
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
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. …