Writing the Self: The Rise of Memoirs in Publishing
by Juliet Garcia
When I used to hear the words ‘life writing’, the image that appeared in my mind was of glossy celebrity autobiographies, brimming with scandalous tell-alls or chartering a rise to stardom. It is only in the past couple of years that I have discovered the literary medium of memoir – a genre of raw and powerfully honest non-fiction books. Rather than sharing a linear tale of cradle to grave, memoirs are often refracted through emotionally charged moments in an author’s life or centred around a theme. Although criticised as a passing fad from a self-obsessed generation, or mocked for the bleak barings of trauma in ‘misery memoirs’, the genre has proved that it is here to stay and offers readers an illuminating insight into personal identity.
An appetite for candid and formally inventive personal narratives can be seen in the rising popularity of memoirs and publishers steadily commissioning more of these titles. While memoirs by previously unknown authors may once have been dismissed as non-commercial or marginal, books such as Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Tara Westover’s Educated now dominate the bestseller charts.
The genre does present distinctive challenges to editors who may feel trepidation when editing such sensitive material, or who fear that, despite the eyes of their legal team, angry accusations of defamation could follow. But looking ahead to this year’s most highly anticipated books, memoirs are in unstoppable ascendancy, with reviewers predicting success for Nikesh Shukla’s Brown Baby, Georgina Lawton’s Raceless and Haruki Murakami’s genre-bending First Person Singular. Below, I recommend five of my favourite memoirs, encompassing intimate investigations of race, sexuality, illness and more.
Constellations: Reflections from Life by Sinéad Gleeson. “The kingdom of the sick is not a democracy,” writes Gleeson in her dazzling meditation on what happens when our bodies betray us. Her reflections on an adolescence spent on the operating table prompts readers to consider the invisibility of our bodies, how we so infrequently consider the vulnerability of our blood, flesh and bones until entering the hospital waiting room. As well as exploring illness, Gleeson’s far-ranging essays touch on ghosts, abortion, motherhood, art, music and grief. A testament to her strength and wisdom, Gleeson reclaims her body as a site of autonomy and compares the metal inserts inside of her to a constellation of stars.
My Name is Why by Lemn Sissay. In this searing and lyrical memoir, Sissay tells the story of
how he was stolen from his Ethopian mother as a child and put in the care of a white working-class family in Wigan. The book is an urgent exposé of the way a generation of children living in care were denied compassion, and Sissay unflinchingly describes his sense of displacement after being sent to a series of loveless children’s homes. Far from being unremittingly bleak, My Name is Why is shot through with resilient hope, and the inclusion of grainy photocopies of social worker reports allow Sissay to poignantly free his identity from their malicious words.
Notes to Self, by Emilie Pine. Pine’s series of exquisite essays blur the boundaries between criticism and memoir, braving topics such as the stigmatisation of periods, infertility, addiction and claiming back power in the workplace. All the essays share a quality of candour and warmth, bravely confronting some of the darkest periods in the author’s life with a hard-earned self-acceptance. Particularly moving is a piece on visiting her alcoholic father in a dilapidated Greek hospital and negotiating the web of grudges and loyalties that make up family life.
Everything I Know About Love by Dolly Alderton. Ex-dating columnist Dolly Alderton offers a frank and hilarious look at living in your twenties, as well as an ode to female friendships. With great wit, Alderton celebrates this transitional stage of life in all its messy glory. The book does not shy away from the shabbier aspects of her twenties, and Alderton is candid about her self-sabotage and the toxic jealousy she feels when a friend gets engaged. However, it is also a book filled with laughter and relatable admissions. From an ill-fated Rod Stewart-themed house party to disastrous dates, the book’s anecdotes act as a comforting reminder that no one really knows what they are doing in their twenties.
In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado. What starts off as a giddy romance with a beautiful Harvard graduate quickly sours, and in this unsettling memoir of abuse, Machado describes a relationship marked by violent outbursts and manipulation. The book shifts between narrative traditions like noir, erotica and folklore, mirroring Machado’s slippery grasp on reality when subjected to gaslighting by her girlfriend, who switches between sweetness and cruelty. Machado’s fight to find a vocabulary for her experiences in a society that does not discuss abuse in same-sex relationships makes for a chilling read but does important work to shatter the silence.