Sunday, March 30, 2008

The Memoir: The Readers' Advisor's Dream or Nightmare

With the controversy of totally fabricated memoirs in the news, The Memoir: The Readers' Advisor's Dream or Nightmare was a hot topic session at PLA A good-sized crowd congregated at 8:30 on the final morning to hear a panel discussion about the collecting and promoting of memoirs in libraries.

The program started with Donna Seaman of Booklist comparing the memoir to biography and autobiography, both of which are usually linear in arrangement and externally verifiable. The memoir is a slipperier item, more akin to poetry than history. Its purpose is to communicate the feel of a life, or, as Seaman says, "the texture of one's days and nights." There is more demand for an honesty of disclosure than for getting every fact straight. Because it is "a life remembered," there is bound to be mistakes. Unfortunately, some authors have violated the trust recently.

A good memoir is about more than the individual life. It usually includes ever widening circles of family, community, and universe. The memoirist seeks to describe experience in a effort to find meaning or identity and to communicate hard lessons learned. Like novels, they do this through the setting of scenes, describing of characters, and telling of stories.

Seaman had an interesting story of being a reviewer. After publishing reviews of memoirs, she sometimes gets calls from the author's family, complaining that what he/she wrote was not true. In response, all Seamon can do is refer them back to their son/daughter/cousin/ex-wife who wrote the book. She is just a reviewer with only the book to judge.

The speaker then reported on two subgenres of memoirs that are currently very popular. The first was the memoirs of people of mixed heritage. Among the books she recommended were:
  • Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama
  • One Drop: My Father's Hidden Life - A Story of Race and Family Secrets by Bliss Broyard
  • Sweeter the Juice by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip
  • Another Way Home: The Tangled Roots of Race in One Chicago Family by Ronee Hartfield
Identify is a prevailing theme in these books, and the author often has to become a sleuth to uncover the story.

Environmental memoirs are also popular, as new books are coming out to join Walden, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, and Desert Solitaire. Among the many books Seaman suggested are the following titles:
  • Naturalist by Edward O. Wilson
  • Unbowed by Wangari Maathai
  • Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place by Terry Tempest Williams
  • Trespass: Living at the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irving
Joyce Saricks followed with thoughts about why librarians love and hate memoirs. On the positive side, they have many of the same appeal factors as fiction, including character, setting, and story. They are hot in a time when the public is fascinated with the personal story, as shown by the popularity of reading blogs and of watching reality television. On the other hand, they are hard to categorize and shelve and sometimes hard to identify, depending on how the publishers market them.

Saricks added that she usually prefers audiobooks not read by the author. For memoirs, however, authors as readers is often a plus, as their personalities come through. She particularly recommends David Sedaris in audio.

Defining a memoir is not exactly easy, according to Saricks. Many narrative nonfiction books have memoir qualities even when there are third person author because these reporter (1) include so much of their subjects voices and (2) their quests to get the stories are memoirs. She recommended Shadow Divers by Robert Kuson.

Barry Trott of the Williamsburg Regional Library, Virginia, said that while character is the main appeal of a memoir, to choose one to suggest to a reader, you have to look at the other appeal factors such as setting, subject matter, story lines, etc.

Trott talked about the travel memoir, which has several common scenarios: including the hapless traveler (A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson), someone escaping their everyday life, or someone going to exotic places. These have the appeal of letting readers go interesting places without leaving home.

He also talked briefly about the recently hot food memoir. Chefs, waiters, and critics are among the people telling stories about their experiences. Calvin Trillin has been doing this for years, and even Euell Gibbons' Stalking the Wild Asparagus was a food memoir of sorts.

Many more titles were mentioned by all the speakers. Seaman said that she will put a list of them on the Booklist Online website.

When asked whether they would move the recently exposed memoirs to fiction, the speakers said no in most cases. Most of the exposures have been of fudging the truth. The totally fabricated memoirs may require some rethinking.


maggie moran said...

Thanks Rick! I feel like I got a chance to attend PLA. Keep up the good reporting! :)

Unknown said...

Great information Rick, thank you. I love reading memoirs. I thank you for the information about fabricated memoirs. I just finished an "authentic" memoir. It's called Nub, Story of an Ex-Cripple. By Author Emile Barrios. A man who lives through incredible challenges and comes out the other side intact. It's touching and inspiring. I hope you have a chance to pick it up and share it. Thanks again for the information. I'll be back to check it.