Publishing's Renewed Holiday Push With Memoirs, an Enduring Genre

The publishing industry has now fully readied itself for the holidays, we can be sure. And its offerings include -- as they have every season since the late, great Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes and Mary Karr's great, still-very-much-with-us The Liar's Club ramped up our national craze for memoirs some 16 years ago -- yet more aggressively-promoted slices of first-person recollection.

And why not, since it's still such an abiding enthusiasm among readers? Riding high in this month's New York Times sales charts -- combining both e-books and hard-copy versions -- are memoirs by Joan Didion, Ellen DeGeneres and Condoleezza Rice.

I recently talked with Karr and with Malachy McCourt (Frank's younger brother, and author in his own right of two memoirs) about just what, in their view, lies behind the public's taste for their kind of work. We were taking part in a books edition of the syndicated radio show Voices of Our World, which was also videoed.

An 'unabridged' version of this show - to use a bookish term - runs for 28 minutes at my Vimeo site.

Those two older hands at memoiring were joined by a relative newcomer, but one with enormous experience in other areas of the business. It was long-time editor Sir Harold Evans, who has also been a publisher -- running Random House as its President for seven years -- and commissioned many a memoir in that time. As an author, he has mostly been known for his popular studies of American history. In a shift this year, as if to underline the trade's ceaseless call for this art form, he joined in personally and put out his own personal tale, My Paper Chase.

After sitting awhile with these three literary luminaries, I can report one intriguing, maybe controversial point that preoccupied us greatly. Karr contended that personal memoir-writing meets a particular contemporary need - in line with the emotional "subjectivization," if I can label it that way, that has come to characterize much of our society's modern culture, philosophy and ethics.

Karr claimed:

"It's a time when the subjective has gained such authority because there's so much lack of confidence in our churches, in our politicians, that in some ways we no longer have an objective sense of history, or an objective sense of what's right or wrong ... And I think people are lonely, and when they read a first person narrative they have a sense of connection, because whoever's writing will be emotionally invested in what they're writing about."

Is this why Amazon can currently report that such works as those by an actor (Diane Keaton) a sober alcoholic ultra-distance runner (Mishka Shubaly) and a female physician negotiating Saudi Arabian society (Qanta Ahmed) have all roared to near the top of its best sellers list?

Read more of David Tereshchuk's media industry insights at his weekly column, "THE MEDIA BEAT" with more video and audio.