Since the early 1990s, tens of thousands of memoirs by celebrities and unknown people have been published, sold, and read by millions of American readers. The memoir boom, as the explosion of memoirs on the market has come to be called, has been welcomed, vilified, and dismissed in the popular press. But is there really a boom in memoir production in the United States? If so, what is causing it? Are memoirs all written by narcissistic hacks for an unthinking public, or do they indicate a growing need to understand world events through personal experiences? This study seeks to answer these questions by examining memoir as an industrial product like other products, something that publishers and booksellers help to create.
These popular texts become part of mass culture, where they are connected to public events. The genre of memoir, and even genre itself, ceases to be an empty classification category and becomes part of social action and consumer culture at the same time. From James Frey’s controversial A Million Little Pieces to memoirs about bartending, Iran, the liberation of Dachau, computer hacking, and the impact of 9/11, this book argues that the memoir boom is more than a publishing trend. It is becoming the way American readers try to understand major events in terms of individual experiences. The memoir boom is one of the ways that citizenship as a category of belonging between private and public spheres is now articulated.
About the author
Julie Rak is a Professor in the Department of English and Film Studies at the University of Alberta. She holds an Eccles Fellowship at the British Library for 2017-2018 and is also a Killam Professor at the University of Alberta for 2017-28. She is the University of Alberta nominee for the Royal Society of Canada 2018 Lorne Pierce Medal for excellence in Canadian literature scholarship. The author of Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (2013) and Negotiated Memory: Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse (2004), Julie has contributed as an editor to many volumes of critically-acclaimed work. With Hannah McGregor, she is the co-author of the Counter-Letter against UBCAccountable, and she sponsors the letter and signatures on a website, accompanied by resources about the controversy. Julie was born on traditional Haudenosaunee territory in New York State, and grew up in Delmar, NY, the traditional territory of the Kanien'kehaken (Mohawk). She currently lives and works on Treaty 6 and Metis territory in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Excerpt: Boom!: Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (by (author) Julie Rak)
Excerpt from Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market by Julie Rak
From the Introduction
This book is about the memoirs that are written, published, sold in bookstores, and circulated by public libraries for people like my grandmother: ordinary readers who are interested in the world around them but who also want to read about places and people that are not accessible to them in their immediate lives. It is also about books that my grandmother wouldn't have had access to yet, the books that are part of what is called the “memoir boom, ” a period roughly spanning the first decade of the twenty-first century, when the production and public visibility of American and British memoirs by celebrities and by relatively unknown people sharply increased. I do think that my grandmother would have greeted the memoir boom with delight, and perhaps even enjoyed the increasing numbers of memoirs by ordinary people who have led extraordinary lives just as much as she liked reading about the lives of the famous. In this she would have joined the thousands of people who participate in the memoir boom by buying, borrowing, downloading, and reading the memoirs that are part of it.
This book is not about readers, however, because other groundwork about what the memoir boom is, how it is produced, and what it means in contemporary life needs to be laid first. Even though she was not part of the current interest in non-fiction books about the lives of others, the focus I have placed on my grandmother as a reader does make evident something about non-fiction, and especially what critics often call life writing, that often gets overlooked. My grandmother, and readers like her, are the reason that the memoir boom exists, but so far, little critical discourse about memoir has had much to say about the books produced for this readership. The books of the memoir boom are produced by mainstream presses for large audiences, and perhaps that is why critics of autobiography tend to overlook them or not teach them in their classes (Couser 2012, 14). And yet, millions of readers like my grandmother still seek out these kinds of books precisely because they are not fictional. What is more, many readers appear to enjoy reading about the lives of others, in apparent ignorance of a chorus of disapproval about the books written for them. Why are so many of these stories produced and eagerly read today? Why are cultural pundits so suspicious of them? How can we understand the ways in which they are produced and received? In mainstream journalism, most analysis of the phenomenon, with the exception of Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History (2009), has taken the form of backlash against aspects of the memoir boom. Other studies, like G. Thomas Couser's recent Memoir: An Introduction (2012), try to understand the memoir boom in light of the history of autobiography production in the United States. In this study of contemporary memoir, I wish to do something a bit different from the other kinds of studies of American memoir in circulation, whether they are by journalists or scholars of life writing. I want to change the way that we have understood memoirs so that we can see them as part of a production cycle as a way to explain how the memoir boom came about, and how it continues. I think that understanding how the book industry works today can help us see why the production of non-fiction has assumed so much importance. I also think that memoirs, particularly those of non-celebrities, have the potential to change the imagined relations their readers have with the lives of others: this is the source of their power and fascination at the present time, and the reason publishers continue to produce them. But exactly what does this change mean? What does it mean to want to enter into imagined relations with others at this time? Does it signify an emergent interest in community? Is it the latest development in neoliberalism that emphasizes the cult of the individual apart from community (Gilmore 2010, 658)? Is it a media industry takeover that sucks the life out of literary production because anybody can write a life story as part of a culture of self-help?
“Here is the first backstory of the memoir boom in America: who reads it, writes it, publishes it, and sells it, and why it is such a necessary part of the way we live now.”
Gillian Whitlock, author of Soft Weapons: Autobiography in Transit (2007)
“Rak brilliantly sheds light on a misunderstood genre and its aficionados in her recent book Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market.... A highly worthwhile read and a compelling analysis of memoir in the first decade of the 21st century.”
“This is a smart and original work, the product of significant scholarship and energetic legwork. Julie Rak has looked beyond the texts that make up the memoir boom to the circumstances of their production, marketing, selling, and consumption. All students of the genre will benefit from her clear account of complex changes in the publishing and marketing of books. Her analysis greatly advances our understanding of the rise of the memoir and its important role in our cultural life.”
G. Thomas Couser, professor emeritus, Hoftstra University, author of Memoir: An Introduction (2011)
“While Rak addresses the process of meaning-making and politics throughout all her chapters, the reader is left with a profoundly political message after reading the conclusion, entitled ‘Citizen Selves and the State of the Memoir Boom’, in which Rak leaves us to ponder how we, as readers and citizens, are woven in the social and political fabric of community life. While it is easy to see memoir as entertainment or intrigue (and, thus, to characterize consumers of memoir as merely interested in the personal) Rak’s argument emphasizes that the boom in memoir is also a boom in ‘personal stories of all types that continue to explore—and upset—the balance between public and private, personal and political.’”
Other titles by Julie Rak
Gender in Mountaineering Nonfiction
Life Among the Qallunaat
CanLit in Ruins
Not Drowning But Waving
Women, Feminism, and the Liberal Arts
The Life and Writing of Nello “Tex” Vernon-Wood in the Canadian Rockies, 1906-1938
Auto/biography in Canada
Doukhobor Autobiographical Discourse