[Published in The Emerging Writer: An Insider's Guide to Your Writing Journey, May 2012]
So said Joan Didion, one of the preeminent memoirists, to her late husband in 1979. Notoriously reticent in person, Didion has always viewed the disclosure of the self as something of an unspoken contract between writer and reader, her expansive collection of essays forever skirting the borderlands between generosity and outright narcissism.
Traditionally, memoir is something that writers come to in later life. (Now 77 years of age, it is only in recent years that Didion turned to memoir — her family history, the death of her husband and the subsequent death of her daughter have all become literary fodder.) In the world of Australian publishing, however, writers are penning memoirs at a younger and younger age.
The reason for this precociousness is unclear. Is this the product of noughties narcissism — the first generation of the internet age, whose lives are more public than ever? Or, on the flipside, is this at the behest of cautious publishers in an increasingly fragile market, where personalities are valued more highly than prose? And without that much life experience to draw upon, the question invariably arises: do young memoirists yet have that elusive ‘something’ to give?
Benjamin Law was only 28 when he published his debut memoir The Family Law in 2010, a collection of humorous essays about growing up Asian and gay in Brisbane. While he had written many personal pieces as a senior writer for Frankie, Law (like many of the writers I spoke with) didn’t set out to create a memoir. After contributing to an anthology that fellow memoirist Alice Pung edited for Black Inc., Growing Up Asian in Australia, the publisher liked his work enough to draw up a book proposal.
Law doesn’t regret his decision now, but swears it would be many years before he would even consider tackling the genre again. He and a friend who were writing memoirs simultaneously would call each other bemoaning their publishers’ request. ‘WE WERE TOO YOUNG AND THERE JUST WASN’T ENOUGH MATERIAL,’ he recalls. ‘We really had to milk those 20-something years until they were dry. I’d need another 25 years of horror and insanity to write something similar again.’
‘Having worked as a bookseller, I do know fiction can be a tough sell, whereas memoir — especially if they might make someone laugh — is an easier push for readers who mightn’t have known your work beforehand.’
Is this surge in memoir then attributable to publishers in an uncertain book market? Statistics surrounding declining profits (blamed on factors like economic instability, online overseas sales and ebook piracy) are all too familiar. With increasingly limited funds dedicated to development and editing, the right memoir may provide expedient material that requires minimal resources devoted to developing the manuscript. An existing media personality may even have a readymade audience — a collection of twitter followers who will, fingers crossed, translate into readers…
Want to read more? The Emerging Writer will be launching at NGV Studio on Friday June 1 as part of the 2012 Emerging Writers’ Festival. Copies are also on sale at Emerging Writers’ Festival events.