Twenty-five memoirs made the New York Times bestseller list the week ending August 17, of this year (2013), (http://www.nytimes.com/best-sellers-books/combined-print-and-e-book-nonfiction/list.html , with many of these memoirs having led the market as bestsellers for many weeks in a row. This count does not include the many self-published memoirists who have had success with child abuse memoirs such as Why Me by Sarah Burleton and Empty Chairs by Stacey Danson. The reading public is discovering that the stories of ordinary people who have lived extraordinary lives, or who have survived unusual experiences, provide the material for memorable memoirs, that is, when they are well written. The big publishing houses are beginning to see the light as they accept more memoirs into their elite collection of promoted authors, such as Brain On Fire by Susannah Cahalan, a story of a woman whose diagnoses of a rare brain disease mesmerized the medical profession. The landscape of the publishing industry has really changed, and so has the image of the simple memoir, since the early days of book publishing.
When I was young (never mind my age), only memoirs about mega stars like Elizabeth Taylor would gain enough interest to win a place on the New York Times bestseller list; and then many celebrities began to write memoirs about the mundane aspects of their daily lives, bringing their huge following of admirers into the book market. The publishing houses could get a two for one deal when they signed a big name star who came prepackaged for instant success, and the unknown memoirist did not stand a chance at that time…then the technological advances of our new cyber age, catapulted us into a raging eBook revolution in which many indie authors became overnight successes, and being an ‘unknown’ author no longer mattered. What did this mean for the memoir author?
Perhaps it was about that time, the idea began to grow in the minds of those less well known, or even totally unknown, that their own lives of tragedy and chaos, disaster and suspense, might actually hold some value in the trained eye of the reading public. There are countless stories in life that are truly stranger than fiction, and some of these stories began to be told by talented authors, many of whom were unknowns, that is, until their lives were plastered all over the world in multiple languages.
So what is it that makes a memoir an appealing read?
The age old literary advice given by most writing instructors, is to “write what you know”, and the second piece of advice is to write it well. When the elements of a good story occur naturally in life, and the conflict, plot and timing is just right, you have more than a personal narrative, you have a ‘memoir’. A well written memoir concentrates an entire life, with all of its obstacles, secret heartaches and successes into a literary capsule, gift-wrapped in a neat cover, and ready to open and read.
Sara Niles Author of Torn From the Inside Out (A Memoir)