Monday, November 07, 2005

On Memoirs

This nice euridite lady has to good take on the state of memoirists in American literature today. Amazing how teenage drunks and complete screwups like James Frey can sail to the top of the charts while folks who actually did something wallow in a vanity press wasteland. Or nowhere. As long as the subjects are tabloidesque they sell.

This is a trap for the amateur writer legimtately telling their personal travails and tales of woe like rape, incest, wife-battering, or the dull "picnics in the good ole days" type of small stuff that inhabits the vanity press rolls. As Mr. Smallwood told Tillie Arnold about her Ketchum memoir with Hemingway in it, "He could write one about Hemingway, but folks don't want to read about their move to Idaho from Iowa in the 1920s. They just don't," he said. She insisted for years and he wouldn't do it. She finally agreed. So he wrote it about Ketchum and Tillie, her husband Loyd and Papa in the 1930s and 40s. Celebrity sells.

My work, although technically memoir, really is travel reporting with me in it. Gonzo journalism of sorts sans the fictional identities. Still, it won't sell in today's vapid market because I'm not anyone yet and that trumps substance every time. Same thing with the Patriot on the Kennebec project. Memoir and family history is a sure rejection, even with George Washington and Benedict Arnold in there. That's why I've changed the title description and many other macro structural aspects of the history narrative. I had to potboilerize it to sell to the general readership. Damn shame really, but I shall overcome.


Blogger The Late Mitchell Warren said...

It seems the only way to tell nonfiction stories if you're not a big name is to turn them into fiction.

A shame indeed, since truth is always stranger and more interesting than fiction--which always tends to be formulaic with a high concept "twist."

Do you get some interest from your query letters with hesitation on the samples? Or is it the entire concept they're not touching?

5:22 PM  
Blogger Mark said...

I get limited response, but I have an overall theme in that the stories are place piece travel journalism, and about scientific inquiry. The agent that read the new book said she thought it wasn't focused enough and wandered. Well I was wandering around the country looking at different places. That's the book, so I don't think it was that it was a memoir per se.

I'm having a more difficult time with the history: too local, not for the general public; they don't do biographys (of little known historical figures)and a fear that history doesn't sell. It clearly can and a similar story just sold and will be out in Dec. so it's BS. I keep tweaking it with these complaints in mind.

8:09 AM  

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