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Celebrating the memoir - fiction's day is done?

When browsing online or in a bookstore, one might easily conclude that every third person in the country is actively engaged in writing or reading a memoir.

Author Ben Yagoda will lead a panel discussion at the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art.
Author Ben Yagoda will lead a panel discussion at the First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art.Read moreEDWARD KIM

When browsing online or in a bookstore, one might easily conclude that every third person in the country is actively engaged in writing or reading a memoir.

The rest have it on their to-do lists.

Ben Yagoda, author of the new Memoir: A History (Riverhead Books) concurs.

"I worked on the book for three years, and the whole time I kept expecting to die down a bit," he said in a recent interview. "But even now I get alerts, 15 or 20 a day, announcing the publication of more new memoirs."

The emphasis on memoir is so strong that autobiography, history and fiction may be endangered. And the reasons for memoir's popularity may rest in our very nature as Americans: In a land where the majority rules, individuality is exalted and memoir is more befitting the American ideal of resourcefulness.

"When it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction's day is done," Yagoda says.

A journalism professor at the University of Delaware, Yagoda will moderate a panel discussion, Inside the Writer's Notebook, Saturday afternoon at the eighth annual First Person Festival of Memoir and Documentary Art. His focus is on print, but festival founder Vicki Solot has a wider definition that squeezes song, dance, collage, film, sculpture, poetry, cooking, performance, and storytelling under the memoir big top.

Memoir is generally defined as a factual account of an episode in the author's life. When used in the plural, memoirs, the form becomes more synonymous with an autobiography, which the reader expects will be a true account of the author's whole life.

Still, many use memoir and memoirs interchangeably and the cachet of both definitely has outstripped that of autobiography.

"There has never been a time like this," says Yagoda. "The sheer volume of memoirs is unprecedented.

In addition to established fiction and nonfiction writers switching genres, students of all ages flock to colleges and community centers for classes - not aimed at examining the meaning of memoir in our culture, but focusing on the how-to of writing and recall.

Everybody may have a story to tell, but many have trouble spitting it out. So we see more oral history projects, and more ordinary individuals hiring freelance writers and graphic designers to pen and print their life stories.

With publication in everyone's grasp, memoir becomes the great equalizer.

Americans like " 'pulled up by your bootstraps' stories in which odds or adversities are overcome," says Lexy Bloom, a senior editor at Vintage and Anchor Books. "That's what makes memoir so successful. We want hope and redemption."

At the same time, we expect intimate revelations from writers - because we certainly don't censor ourselves. We share our most intimate secrets with total strangers on planes and trains.

Memoir connects us with others and the past. And when done right (with truth) it satisfies our craving for authenticity. "Memoir is to fiction as photography is to painting," Yagoda says.

Nancy K. Miller, of the graduate school at City University of New York, says autobiography suffers as a result. The genre is perceived as old-fashioned, says Miller, author of But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People's Lives (Columbia University Press, 2002).

Autobiography also is damaged by the myth that it is not as rich as memoir in conjuring characters and establishing milieu.

At the same time, readers who are drawn to books for the sake of learning think they have more to learn from memoirs, especially when those books are set in other countries or told from different cultural perspectives.

"People don't believe they can learn anything from fiction anymore," says Miller, "and that's terrible for both genres."

History falls prey to the same demons.

"We've lost our faith in history books," says Kathryn Watterson, who teaches graduate nonfiction writing at the University of Pennsylvania, "because we know that so much of history was distorted or omitted."

Maureen Corrigan, who teaches autobiography at Georgetown University and reviews books on National Public Radio, says post-modern fiction with unreliable narrators or aspects of mystical realism is less approachable.

"Memoirs are easier for book groups to discuss," Corrigan says. "In general, people don't know how to talk about novels. With a memoir, they can talk about what they related to in the story."

But it is our loss, Corrigan says, if we assume the only books we can relate to are "true" stories.

Yagoda says that despite fraudulent memoirs that break the unwritten contract between writer and reader - that the author will at least try to tell the truth - memoirs will always be with us.

They won't all be memorable. And at times too many may focus on a single topic such as addiction or our love of pets. Still, "just when you think you hit the saturation point," says Bloom, "along comes a great read."

"The writing," she says, "is fundamental."

First Person Festival

The eighth annual festival falls on the 80th anniversary of the 1929 stock market crash, and recalls the songs, stories and even the stews that got us through.

When: Tonight through Sunday

Where: Painted Bride Art Center, 230 Vine St., unless otherwise noted.

Admission: Free to $55, with discounts for members. Details: 267-402-2055 or


Edible World Hoof it from one haute burger eatery to the next with Arthur Etchells, of 6 tonight, $55.

Speakeasy Experience the tunes and 'tude of a Depression-era gin joint, 5-9 p.m., Wed-Sat. Open bar and snacks. $20.

America Eats: Food writer and Roxborough native Pat Willard completed what WPA writers Eudora Welty and Ralph Ellison started by documenting the meals of back-roads America. 6-7:30 p.m. Wed., $30 includes dinner.

Songs for Any Depression: Woody Guthrie's granddaughter (and Arlo's daughter) Sarah Lee Guthrie performs with her husband, Johnny Irion, and the storytelling folk duo Kim and Reggie Harris. 8 p.m. Wed. $30.

See Friday's Weekend section for more First Person events.

- Dianna Marder