By JENNIFER SCHUESSLER in The New York Times, July 25, 2009
When Frank McCourt died last weekend at age 78, we were momentarily transported, it seemed, to a more innocent age of the American memoir.
Bebeto Matthews/Associated Press
MEMOIR MAN Frank McCourt wrote of his miserable Irish childhood in his first book, which set in motion a boom in memoirs, including some fakes.
For once, public discussion of a best-selling memoirist didn’t involve the words “fabrication,” “apologize” or “James Frey.” Instead, publishing insiders and ordinary readers alike recalled being captivated by the poetic intensity and rueful humanity of Mr. McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” while former students fondly recalled the brilliant New York City public school teacher who waited until his mid-60s to finally grow up into a world-famous, Pulitzer Prize-winning author by writing down the amazing stories of his hardscrabble Irish childhood he’d been spinning out loud for years.
The memoir genre has taken plenty of hits from moralists, fact checkers and freelance scolds in the 13 years since “Angela’s Ashes” sold four million copies in hardcover and spent more than two years on the best-seller lists. But it endures as perhaps the dominant genre of contemporary literature — and an easier route to fame and fortune than the novel (as Mr. Frey, who has said he originally submitted the discredited “A Million Little Pieces” to his publisher as fiction, has surely come to appreciate).
Today, bookstores are clogged with memoirs, not just about abuse and addiction, but about parenting, cooking and dog rearing. There are B-list (and C-list) celebrity memoirs. There are memoirs about dedicating a year to reading the Oxford English Dictionary, living without toilet paper or having as much sex as possible via the personal ads in The New York Review of Books (a subgenre sometimes mocked as “shtick lit”). The first-person confessional approach is an easy way for writers to add drama and voice to the most improbable subjects, while increasing their odds of getting booked on talk shows that shun the average novelist.
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