I’m old enough (I’ll spare you the guess: I’m 48) that I can remember a time when, in order to have your memoirs published, you had to have done something first. You had to be an ex-President, a famous actor, a baseball player (or to be more specific, a baseball player’s ghostwriter) or an explorer. You had to be well-known. You had to have accomplished something that was, at least within the confines of your field, extraordinary.
Now, apparently you just need to have screwed up royally at some point in your life, and be able to reach the keyboard of a laptop.
This week’s news that a 19-year-old Harvard student’s novel was yanked from the shelves after great acclaim (and major bucks) because apparently large chunks of it were unconsciously and unintentionally copied word-for-word from other books left other writers gnashing their teeth at the sheer audacity of the thing. Their feel-good story about Kaavya Viswanathan, a girl who could write a bestselling novel at an age when most of us were too busy trying to find a date for the prom, was exploded. They couldn’t believe they’d been suckered in. Some were flat-out jealous about the previous incarnation of this junior novelist, and silently chuckled to themselves about retribution.
Not me. I just shook my head and smiled a rueful smile, and thought: “what a great career move.”
Think of it! Now, all this semi-confessed plaigiarist (how do you “unintentionally” copy large passages of someone else’s novel and then forget?) has to do is agree to tell her side of the story in–one hopes–her own words, and before she is old enough to toast herself with a legal beer, she’ll be financially set for the rest of her life.
Man, I wish I’d thought of that when I was a teenager, but no. I was too busy working on the school newspaper.
Think I’m wrong? Consider this: Jayson Blair, who used to make up stuff for The New York Times when he was supposed to be reporting, you know, facts, sold a book about how he did it and why it was really other people’s fault, and reportedly pocketed himself a six-figure advance.
Valerie Plame, whose major claim to fame two years ago was that saying her name out loud was a Federal crime, is now shopping her side of the story, and the bidding is reportedly up to seven figures (that’s in the millions, for the mathematically challenged). She can’t tell us who “outed” her, since she doesn’t actually know for sure, but publishers can’t wait to pay her enough to buy a small island not to tell us.
James Frey, whose memoir about drug rehab quite famously turned out to be a novel about drug rehab, hasn’t signed a contract on what one can only hope would be a “real” memoir–about how he made up the last one and got Oprah mad at him. Not yet, anyway, but how much do you want to bet?
And then there’s the case of J.T. LeRoy, who wrote about his years as a drug-addicted, sexually abused teenage HIV-positive prostitute and became a darling of the New York literary scene. He didn’t just make up the story; he made up himself. The fact that there really was no such person as J.T. LeRoy didn’t stop him/her/it (apparently there were two J.T. LeRoys, or three, depending on how you want to count them: a musician named Geoffrey Knoop says his ex-partner Laura Albert invented LeRoy and did the writing, and his half-sister “played” J.T. out on the town. Photographs indicate she looks as much like a teenaged boy as Julie Andrews looked like a man in Victor/Victoria) from signing for major bucks, palling around with serious lit stars and signing the obligatory movie deal.
Makes a person wonder if maybe we should all make ourselves up and cut out the middleman.
How have these frauds been punished? Knoop has reportedly signed a movie deal about the hoax. His attorney says he came clean after he and Albert split up because “he wanted to take the high road.”
The high road!
Still, all these frauds (minus Ms. Plame, who according to all reports really was a CIA operative) aren’t the problem with memoirs. It’s the fact that everybody and their Uncle Sid thinks we’re obsessed with their lives these days. It used to be that you had to be extraordinary to write and publish a memoir; now, you don’t even have to be interesting.
It seems that virtually everyone on the planet had a horrific childhood full of abuse (sexual, physical or emotional), a horrific experience with addiction (sexual, drug, alcohol–which is a drug–or shopping), a horrific secret to tell the family (sexual, drug or psychological) or a horrific marriage to someone better known than they are (sexual, athletic, literary or Hollywood).
Go to the local bookstore, and–after picking up copies of my novels and non-fiction–check out the memoir section. It’s larger than almost any other in the store, with the possible exception of the Stephen King wing, Oprah’s Book room (with copies of only one book in it at a time) and The DaVinci Code: The Ride. Scan the titles: how many of those people have you ever heard of? How many of them are telling you stories that aren’t designed to make you feel inadequate because you haven’t had to go through some heartbreakingly awful experience? How many of them have recipes? What the heck is that all about?
Does this sound like sour grapes? Am I complaining about memoirists because I couldn’t sell a memoir on my best day? Maybe it’s not the writers of memoirs with whom I have a problem. Maybe it’s really my parents. Damn it: they were normal! They stayed married for my entire childhood, and beyond, the swine. They tried their best to do things that would make us kids happy. They worked hard and played fair. Honestly, how could they? They didn’t even have the common decency to sell us for liquor, become addicted to LSD (it was the Sixties, after all) or even–and would this have been so damn hard?–to become Communists. Sure, it’s outdated, but I’ll bet I could have gotten some good mileage out of that. But, noooooooooo!
My childhood, my education, even my young adulthood was so by-the-numbers I could have been named “Generic Jewish Kid.” (And the fact is, my name actually is Yiddish for “Generic Jewish Kid.”)
We even lived in New Jersey, for goodness sake! And we didn’t know ONE mob boss. Not a capo. Nobody.
I’m telling you, the lack of trauma screwed me up for life. I’ll never be able to sell a memoir for six figures (or even two figures, on either side of the decimal point). I’ll never be asked to weep on Oprah’s couch, assuming Tom Cruise’s sneaker prints have been cleaned off. Dr. Phil won’t answer my calls. Larry King would rather book Lola Falana. My children will have to go to community college because I simply wasn’t mistreated enough. My life is in ruins.
Hey… maybe there’s a memoir in there somewhere. I’ll jot down a few notes.