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Frank McCourt, author of Angela’s Ashes, died one year ago today. Soon after his death a series of blog posts and articles looked at the impact he had on the memoir genre. This article tries to both quantify and qualify just what effect he had on literature and whether it has waned.
“F***ing Kansas City,” Frank McCourt complained inside of my 1996 Volkswagen Jetta. “I’m never coming here again. I won’t survive it.”
It was the fall of 1997. I was a 28-year-old newsletter editor for the public library, driving the literary sensation from his hotel room at Crown Center—a shopping and hotel district owned by Hallmark—to a Unity church where he would soon enchant a crowd of more than 1,200. The author of Angela’s Ashes, the anointed Pulitzer Prize winner and yearlong bestselling author at the height of his fame…was cussing out my hometown. In my car! I should have felt triumphant, but I was sick with nerves and keenly focused on two goals: don’t wreck and don’t say anything stupid. He was already tired and displeased—not unreasonably so—I didn’t want to add to it.
“It’s a lovely city,” McCourt continued, kindly, “but I’ve never been worked so hard in my life.”
By the time he arrived in Kansas City, the buzz around McCourt was deafening. Everyone wanted a piece—schools, Irish societies, literary societies, donors to the library. The evening he landed, we whisked him to a fundraiser at an Irish bar. The next day he was booked for five appearances before his big speech that night.
“Kansas City might be the end of me,” he predicted.
His trip in a way was a beginning for me, because one short telephone interview the week before he arrived altered my writing career. Here’s a recap: I wrote a small profile about him for the library newsletter that was placed on each seat in the Unity auditorium. The mother of Molly Rowley, a speechwriter for then Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, sent the newsletter to her. Rowley, a former journalist, sent me an email a week after McCourt’s talk, wondering if I ever considered being a journalist. I responded that I had just left journalism after working at a string of small-town newspapers in the rural Midwest. Rowley called and said I should be writing for her former newspaper, The Kansas City Star, and then she let one editor know that. First I wrote book reviews, then event previews and finally full-length feature stories for the Sunday magazine. Out of the blue, I was doing what I had actually set out to do with my life.
I know Molly is the real hero, but if not for McCourt and his book, I have no idea where my career would be today. And I sometimes wonder how many other writers could say the same, whether they realize it or not. If Frank McCourt had not written Angela’s Ashes, and had it not launched into the stratosphere, how many no-name authors would have had their memoirs published in the past 14 years? Which brings up another question. What hath Frank McCourt wrought? Is he responsible for what Oregon Public Radio called “Memoir Nation”—the overheated desire to expose one’s own life for fame or money, sometimes disregard certain nuisances such as facts?
Soon after McCourt’s death last summer, critic Lee Siegel drew a straight line from the Irishman to James Frey, the falsifier of life stories and the embodiment of all that is wrong with modern memoirs.
Wherever Frank McCourt is now,” Siegel wrote in the Daily Beast, “and whatever sins he has to answer for, one will surely be that he bears much of the blame for the endless waves of memoirs that have been engulfing us since Angela’s Ashesappeared in 1996. … ”
Was Siegel right? Did McCourt open the floodgates?
The 15 minutes start ticking
After 30 years of struggling with his story in various forms—a play, a novel, a revue—McCourt finally found his form. The result was a memoir with a modest printing and little publicity. No one was predicting the international sensation Angela’s Ashes would become. Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History says it was fortuitous timing for McCourt.
“Trends, social forces, whatever is happening at the time all played a part when Frank was trying to figure out how he would write his book,” Yagoda says.
The year before, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club and Dave Pelzer’s A Child Called It found big audiences by recounting childhoods on the edge of sanity and safety, but nothing on par with McCourt. Yagoda says the confessional culture was taking hold, “with shows like Oprah and Fresh Air. There was a desire for writers with unusual personal stories to tell. And they could tell their own stories.”
The memoir genre was suddenly open not only to celebrities and dignitaries, but to anyone with a story they once wouldn’t dare share at a dinner party. Now they were spilling it all over the page. Is it a coincidence that blogging and reality television would soon become part of the lexicon? But without McCourt, the publishers might have never opened those floodgates for anything more than a trickle.
Look at the Nonfiction Best Seller List the first week of 1996, the year Angela’s Ashes was published:
THE ROAD AHEAD, by Bill Gates with Nathan Myhrvold and Peter Rinearson.
MY AMERICAN JOURNEY, by Colin L. Powell with Joseph E. Persico.
CHARLES KURALT’S AMERICA, by Charles Kuralt.
SISTERS. Essays by Carol Saline. Photographs by Sharon J. Wohlmuth.
DAVID BRINKLEY, by David Brinkley.
Three journalists, one army general and the richest man in the world commanded the top five. Those are safe bets to sell books relative to no-names. In the first six years of the 90s, not one Publishers Weekly’s yearly Top 10 Best-Selling Nonfiction slot was held by a memoirist, unless already famous. It’s hard to see this now, but the odds were long that McCourt would rise to the level he did.
On September 22, 1996, McCourt made his first appearance on The New York Times Bestseller’s List, quietly, in the 15 slot. In December of that year, the book hit number 1—ahead of David Brinkley, Tim Allen, the Duchess of York, even Dogbert.
By the time McCourt came to Kansas City, he had been on the list for 51 weeks straight, often on top. Just below him was another no-name-come-bestselling-memoirist Monty Roberts, who McCourt jokingly referred to as, “that asshole that talks to horses.” McCourt ended the year atop the PW Best-Seller list for 1997. His brother Malachy joined the Times best-seller list in 1998 with A Monk Swimming. They were sharing the limelight with Sebastien Junger’s storm and Jon Krakuaer’s thin air, but a memoir hurricane was brewing. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote in March, 1997: “Now we are in an exhibitionist era and publishers are frantically signing up the hampers. We have revenge memoirs. Good mommy memoirs. Bad mommy memoirs. Bad daddy memoirs. Very bad surrogate daddy memoirs. …”
What caught Dowd’s attention was an astronomical payout for the memoir of a 98-year-old central Kansan named Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux. Warner Books backed up the $1 million Brinks truck during the auction for Foveaux’s “Any Given Day,” the recounting of an abusive marriage to an alcoholic. The book’s existence came to light when her writing teacher Charley Kempthorne sent the manuscript to the Wall Street Journal, which published a story about it. Would a bidding war have ensued if not for McCourt’s astronomical success at just that time? It clearly did not hurt Ms. Foveaux’s chances.
Not long after McCourt visited, I started a program in several public library systems around Kansas City called “A Thousand Stories,” a memoir-writing class for retired-age people. The point was to teach them simple journalism techniques so they could share their life stories with family. People showed in droves—but they had bigger plans than family bonding.
“I want to publish my book and I don’t mind if they pay me a million dollars for it,” said Virginia, the first woman to walk into my first class.
The second woman arrived with more realistic financial goals.
“I’m too old to worry about getting rich,” said Margaret, 89. “I want to publish something in The New Yorker.
Piper Kerman, recent first-time author of Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Woman’s Prison says that if any floodgates had opened, it was within writers themselves.
“I think there’s a sense of ownership of our stories that has evolved over the past few years,” Kerman says, “we realize they are valuable.”
Was this realization a good thing for the publishing industry or was Siegel right that McCourt is dangling in literary purgatory?
A few at the top
No one topped or even matched McCourt for success. But after scanning every New York Times Bestseller List from 1997 to the present, I counted 47 memoirs by non-famous people that reached for at least one week. That’s not storming the gates of literature, but it’s no trickle either.
Some of those books became institutions in their own rights—Augusten Burrough’s Running with Scissors spent just a month on the list, but later became a movie and made the former PR writer a literary celebrity. Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead has a similar story, including the movie. The range of quality and of topics are vast: “An American runs a beauty school in Kabul”—“A former child soldier from Sierra Leone describes his drug crazed killing spree”—“A young woman recalls her excessive drinking”—“The widow of a state trooper becomes a chaplain on search and rescue missions in the Maine woods.” If sales are the test—and they are—it does appear plenty of bets on obscure memoirists paid off.
Cruise over to Amazon.com and the trend continues. Three Cups of Tea, which Greg Mortensen co-wrote with journalist David Oliver Relin, has been an Amazon.com bestseller for years. He followed up with his own Stones into School last year. A London inner-city ambulance worker, writing under the pseudonym Tom Reynolds, parlayed his blog into two top sellers under the series, “Blood, Sweat and Tea.” Julie Powell did the same with Julie and Julia. Randy Pausch, a computer professor at Carnegie Mellon, became an overnight literary sensation with Last Lecture, his reflections about life after being diagnosed with terminal cancer. Jill Bolte Taylor turned her stroke into a New Age phenomenon with My Stroke of Insight.
Laura Munson is perhaps the latest beneficiary. A column she wrote, based on her memoir This is Not the Story You Think It Is for the Times’ “Modern Love” column caused a firestorm of reaction. She explained on her site: “My agent, Tricia Davey went out with the book version that Monday morning, and after writing for twenty years, having completed fourteen novels and endured countless rejections…within forty-eight hours, I had a book deal.”
In hunting for the obscure, I found another impact of McCourt’s book—the rise of the semi-famous memoirist—which accounted for 58 more bestsellers in the past 14 years. It started with Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie and continued with Eat, Pray, Love and Commited by journalist Elizabeth Gilbert, several raunchy, unrepentant best-sellers by Chelsea Handler, The Glass Castle by journalist Jeanette Walls, who has had a four-year run near the top of Amazon’s best sellers list.
So Siegel is right about the “waves” of memoirs—thousands were printed and hundreds prospered. But just looking at what has done well, has it really been all that insidious?
Drivel or more?
Poet and playwright Nick Flynn turned the memoir into his own form with Another Bullshit Night in Suck City and The Ticking is a Bomb. He told me memoir is another method of doing his work—he doesn’t even see the forms of poetry and memoir being that distinct.
“The things I try to do in poetry, the different ways of approaching language, I try to do that through memoir—they line up well,” Flynn says.
If memoir is a form where great writing can happen, then what is Siegel’s complaint? Certainly fiction, for instance, provides a solid tonnage of crap each year and we don’t condemn Mary Shelley for that. Not that McCourt has been matched all that often for critical laurels either.
Reading through lists of best nonfiction books of the decade, I found only a handful of memoirs. Dave Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which he says was slightly fictionalized, was the most consistent choice. Eggers is also the only moderately obscure memoirist (he was a journalist in San Francisco) to be nominated for a Pulitzer since McCourt won in 1997. The National Book Award has a similar record and memoirs in general didn’t fair well in The National Book Critics Circle Award after McCourt won—despite having a Biography/Autobiography category. In 2005, the critics split the categories so that a memoir wins each year. Established writers Francine du Plessix Gray, Daniel Mendelsohn and Edwidge Danticat won the first three. Ariel Sabar, a longtime journalist, won the next and the British novelist and editor Dan Athill won the most recent.
That may change if it’s true what Priscilla Painton, editor in chief at Simon & Schuster, says: “We’re looking for beautifully written stories that compel people to read. Who’s writing it doesn’t matter so much as that is really fine writing.”
That probably won’t calm Siegel’s indignation over McCourt’s legacy, because his real problem is with the frauds.
Will Frey be the last word?
“When James Frey was discovered to have fabricated the events of his life that gave his memoir such picaresque piquancy, the foundation of the entire nonfiction world was shaken,” Siegel writes, “not just the book industry, but every corner of print and broadcast journalism.”
But the Frey scandal sparked another conversation about the relativity of truth when memory is involved. Writers like David Carr (The Night of the Gun) and Flynn address that issue directly in their works.
“I don’t have a very good memory at all,” Flynn says. “I don’t pretend this is a perfect memory. The important thing is to try to get the memory down imperfectly and ask yourself why you remember it that way. And then find out exactly what happened at that moment, investigate your memory by asking others. And see where you misremember.”
Of course Frey had a different agenda–hopping up his story for dramatic effect, then naming it a memoir because publishers weren’t biting on it as a novel. And Frey’s indiscretion didn’t stop the lies. Since his Oprah-anointed fiction was outed, writers Margaret Seltzer, Nasdijj and JT LeRoy (all pseudonyms ) gained critical acclaim for their memoirs before they were exposed as fabrications.
“There’s nothing new about this,” Yagoda says. “Since the beginning of so-called true stories, there have been questions about their authenticity.”
Is the McCourt era over?
Yagoda senses the frauds have put the brakes on the memoir surge.
“That’s not a scientific study, by any means,” he says, “it’s just a hunch that publishers are moving away from the memoir a bit.”
It does appear that 2007 and 2008 (32 bestsellers for non-celebrities) was better for memoirists than 2009 and 2010 (on pace for about 20). The big-splash memoirs lately are going back to known names—such as Christopher Hitchens now, George W. Bush and, amazingly, Mark Twain in November. That star power feels an awful lot like the list pre-McCourt.
Some of that energy to reveal private lives is being absorbed, and perhaps fueled, by the social media. SMITHmag.net offers a publishing tool specifically for memoir-writing, but what is going on at Facebook, Twitter, WordPress and many other sites is also allowing obscure memoirists to unravel their lives in any form they want, without the restrictions of editors and standards for factuality, but also without any financial reward.
Does Painton think that obscure memoirs will sell in the future?
“How should I know?” Painton laughs. “Who would have guessed that vampire love stories were going to be hot five years ago?”
So a memoir from a vampire in love?
“If you hear of one, let me know,” she says, before considering the implications of that statement in print. “No, never mind.”
A life exposed
Speaking of vampires, when McCourt finished his rousing talk in Kansas City, he looked like all the life was sucked out of him.
“Do you need a drink?” I asked.
“God no,” he said. “I want to go to bed.”
I did ask McCourt one incredibly stupid question, about whether he ran into Steinbeck when he hung out with the literati at the Lion’s Head in Greenwich Village.
“He lived on Long Island for Christ’s sake,” he said. “That’s two hours away.” But I also asked him a question he loved—about whether he was embarrassed writing about all that masturbation he did as a youth. “Ah, yes!” he laughed, “Instead of ‘Cool Hand Luke,’ they could have called me ‘Tired Hand Frank.’”
Exposure was the nature of the business and McCourt understood that as well as anyone. Did he ever get tired of the exposure? “Not when the royalty checks arrive,” he joked over the phone, during the interview.
If he helped usher in a Memoir Nation, McCourt did so happily. What he exposed about his life, through three memoirs in total, made him one of the most popular writers in America for a decade.
But why do people want to know? Why do they care about the intimate details of another person’s life? Actually, Flynn says, the point is not the writer at all.
“You begin to realize that no one really cares about your life,” he says. “It’s what they see in your writing that reminds them of theirs. And that’s exactly how it should be.”