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What Makes Memoir the Most Popular Literary Genre? Intimacy.

In our increasingly compartmentalized and disconnected world, one of the best ways to foster intimacy between two people is when one shares their story in a memoir. Read on to see why memoir is the most popular literary genre and the levels of depths of intimacy it affords both writer and reader.

Memoir, which is a true story told as vividly as a novel, is the literary genre most people gravitate to, and it has been that way for decades. Adult nonfiction consistently outsells all other types of books, and memoirs and biographies are the #1 best-selling non-fiction book category on Amazon

Intimacy is the reason memoir continues to be the most popular literary genre

In a memoir, the writer takes the reader on a journey either based on a period of time in their life or on a selection of experiences, during which and as a result of they experienced great transformation and gained deep meaning, insight, and clarity.

Using their evolution as the work’s organizing principal, the memoirist conversationally wends their way through sharing their thoughts and feelings about their pasts, making the reader feel like a trusted friend.

The memoirist also commonly recounts key moments of their pasts in scenes, which viscerally immerse the reader in those moments as if they are present while the action unfolds. Such personal engagement calls on a reader’s empathy and draws them in yet more.

Through this linear two-strand environment of real-time illustration of events being narrated intimately to the writer, the reader is brought along on the memoirist’s journey in a uniquely personal way.

There is intimacy in the novel, of course; you can go into the heart and mind of the characters as deeply and intricately as if they were real people (or in truth, in far more in-depth ways than you can with real people!). 

But where a reader is aware, even if only tacitly, that a novel is made up (even if much of it is based on real life), that filter is removed with a memoir, whose very purpose is to share a story that is true.

When you flip to the back cover of a memoir and see the author photo, you know that’s the person who lived the experiences in the book, and that’s the voice of the narrator telling you the story. Even before you get to page 1, you’ve already embarked on a close-knit relationship.

faded stack of self help books

Interestingly, one of the reasons business or self-help/self-actualization books are booming as a genre isn’t just that people need more help or guidance; it’s that the books themselves are becoming more intimate by fusing elements of memoir with the teachings and instruction. 

The business owner or thought leader’s anecdotes and insights provide a personal perspective to insights of the book that make the writer feel real and human and, because people learn best through story, help their wisdom land more acutely.

That hazarding of soul and self on the page—one real person laying their self and story bare—removes the sheath of artifice, pressing two human beings together as closely as if they were flowers between the pages.

Straddling the line of real life and literary artifice

Naturally the work must be framed or “packaged” as a cohesive story with a clear theme to make it readable and digestible. In real life, there is complexity, paradoxes, and things that defy easy explanation. In a book, however, the theme or takeaway needs to be clearly defined and of one purpose, meaning all of the narrative elements of the book must line up to support the theme. 

So while the elements of the memoirist’s life happened and are their version of the truth, to make the story become a story, they’re allowed to massage minor* aspects of it that don’t infringe on the main elements.

two hands almost touching
  • *It’s allowed, for example, to amalgamate a few key teachers into a single teacher or highlight some points on the timeline and subvert others for dramatic impact. 

    It’s not allowed to invent an anesthesia-free root canal or time spent in prison (ahem, James Frey).
  • It is also permissible to “package” one’s complex humanity into a persona, which could be defined as a literary version of a person that makes sense within the pages of this particular book.

    The writer is still very much authentically themselves but distilled and realized in a more understandable scope. In this way, when you meet a memoirist in the pages of their book, you are meeting the real-life person though perhaps not the entirety of them in all their glorious human messiness. Not only is that not possible, it also wouldn’t support the book’s purpose as a whole.
  • And naturally, there will always be subjective perspectives in a memoir; no person can write the objective truth.

 

A memoir isn’t journalism or history, supplying “a verifiable, corroborative truth”, it is a literary text.

Yet the memoirist’s purpose is to aim to tell the truth as they feel it is from their point of view. Readers reliably know that the story is real. The events happened. The people talked about in the memoir existed or still exist, and the thoughts and feelings and how they’re shared by the narrator are authentic. Memoir readers know that when we read a memoir, we’re engaging in humanity in its most present form. And that connection is thrilling and meaningful to readers.

 

Art is not — and cannot be — impersonal. It is about discovering and rediscovering one’s self in connection to the world around.

Memoir Opens Us to the World and to Ourselves

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When we read about someone else’s journey, whether mundane or harrowing, we are able to see ourselves through their experiences, thoughts, and feelings. People are in essence all the same with the same wants, desires, and vulnerabilities. When a memoirist lays their own bare but comes through the darkness into the light over the course of the book, it’s the reader’s chance to experience salvation as well—and from the safety and comfort of their sofa.

Memoir offers a window into connection with real people in a digestible attainable format. We can feel like we’ve been party to someone’s life via their memoir. And while the complexity of a person and a whole life can never be laid out in a single book, we still get a strong sense of that sliver of their life, and for that, we are better off for having had access to that integral human tether.

Celebrity or Next-Door Neighbor: We're All Just People

That’s one of the reasons celebrity memoirs take off like wildfire. Spare by Prince Harry, sold 1.6 million copies in its first week, Brittany Spears’ memoir, The Woman in Me, sold 1.1 million copies in its first week, and Becoming by Michelle Obama has sold more than 17 million copies. These works break through the façade and show the real (or “real”) person behind.

Yet while celebrity memoirs do humanize their subjects and show them to be just people, they are also often ghostwritten and have an agenda, which is to fuel the celebrity’s platform as much as or more than move their reader.

It’s the authentic stories written by “normal” folks among us that are what tend to be the largest portals through which we can both see and connect to each other and to ourselves.

Nurses, teachers, police officers, firefighters – they might be ordinary people, but they’re doing extraordinary jobs, and it’s about connecting with people who’ve gone through something and come out the other side

Christie Watson,  The Language of Kindness: A Nurse’s Story (which sold over 100,000 copies in the first few weeks of publication). 

three book covers for One Lit Place authors

Any time a person talks themselves out of writing their memoir because they lived a “normal” life, they only need to think about all of the memoirs they’ve read that moved them to realize their story would be in perfect company.

All of the memoirs written by the writers who have worked with us at One Lit Place are such beautiful explorations of real people’s experiences:

  • Judy Haveson’s memoir Laugh Cry Rewind is about living her life to the fullest despite the tragic loss of her sister at a young age
  • Joan Ulsher’s memoir, Misplaced Childhood takes readers through her abusive childhood and what brought her to becoming a child care advocate for children in foster care
  • Heather Mallett’s memoir, Valiant Be is about growing up in an Ontario grist mill during World War 2

These, among many others, illustrate real people striving to survive and thrive and showing us how to do the same.

Memoir is the most popular literary genre precisely because of regular people beautifully, articulately, and intimately sharing their stories.

 

Memoir Makes the World More Intimate

Learning about other facets of life, cultures, and experiences beyond our own four walls is also a chance to knit the world more tightly together.

What better way to learn about the ways of the world and those in it than through a person’s unique perspective? In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass documents his life as an American slave and his journey to becoming one of the most prominent abolitionists in the U.S.

In They Called Me Number One, author Bev Sellars details her experiences in a Canadian residential school and its lasting effects on her family and community and her own healing.

And let’s not forget The Diary of Anne Frank, which has sold over 30 million copies and been translated into more than 70 languages. 

 

Memoir helps us all understand each other. Memoir is […] the best way to immerse yourself in a new perspective that really existed, or exists, in the same world we all inhabit.

In a world that increasingly feels more distanced and fractured, it’s a comfort and a thrill to know that you can pick up a memoir and instantly feel a kinship with a new friend.

Memoir will surely hold its place as the most popular literary genre for a long time because we need those feelings of intimacy to become our best selves- selves that go on to read (and write) more books and to do our part to give solace, comfort, catharsis, and joy to each other.

When you are ready to tell your story, we’re here to help you do it.
Our 4-month memoir program with continuous mentorship, master class-level instruction, a custom writing schedule, and accountability makes your journey through writing your memoir possible!

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