- Boom! Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market by Julie Rak
In 1977 Marcus Billson called “memoir” the “forgotten genre,” and during the later years of the twentieth century, there was little critical or theoretical remembering of the genre, especially in terms of its difference from other generic discourses. But a kind of renaming process was happening in connection with the study of women’s life narratives. In the early 90s both Jill Ker Conway and I were publishing work on what we called women’s “autobiographical” production, but by the end of the century we had both renamed these women’s life narratives as “memoirs.” I would suggest that because both of us had written our own life narratives by that time, we had tangled with genre in the way that creative non-fiction writers have to: out of a compelling need to find and recreate the right form to write of the lives we were living in the fast changing cultural circumstances of our times. While this struggle for form generally precedes the critical acts of defining the shape and change of a genre, critical acts quickly come into play to add their input to the shape of the form as it evolves. But even as the literary critic is describing a generic shift, the book market is also affecting the shape of that shift, making another level of critique possible and necessary if the cultural impact of a genre is to be fully understood. This is generally the task of “cultural” studies, which is part of a triad of production: creative writing, literary critique, and cultural critique, an interconnected circle of intellectual activity we rarely identify as such since it often takes decades, even centuries, for a mode of writing to go through all three stages of consideration. But the movement of memoir from the outskirts to the center of critical consideration at the turn of the third millennium, in the “boom” phenomenon that Julie Rak identifies and explores, makes Manufacturing Memoir for the Popular Market (her subtitle) a timely critical act that reveals the genre’s life cycle more fully as it is shaped by the choices made by agents of the book industry.
A bookseller once told me that “autobiography is what famous people write, memoir is what the rest of us write.” The “boom” that Rak describes, and the tendency for the non-famous, “the rest of us,” to feel we are entitled to the public hearing of our own stories has been examined by Rak in her [End Page 791] published essays on citizenship and memoir writing, and now in her Introduction to Boom!, where she points to the backlash against memoir from forces that value fiction, and the worry, as expressed by one newspaper reviewer, about the “failure of the memoir to be literary enough.” In observing the tendency of defenders of the genre to focus on “aspects of its rhetoric, and not on its production or its readership” (folks, I confess, like me), and the opposite tendency of the critics of the “boom” who “spend more energy . . . dismissing this genre than discovering what the proliferation of books might have to say about American life and culture in the twenty-first century” (folks like the unhappy newspaper reviewer), Rak proposes that what we need to discover is the dialectic of “containment/resistance” that will help us understand this dichotomy of positive and negative interest in the booming memoir form.
In her “Introduction” Rak admirably works her way through a theorization of genre as “an organizing set of principles” (18) for understanding the production and consumption of the product that is memoir, genre understood as a function that “works in the background of all kinds of utterances and acts, constructing, constricting, and allowing what can be thought altogether” (27). This consideration of genre, not from the point of view of the creative struggle that yields the memoir but from the place it takes up in the larger culture is a well referenced and original discussion of genre as...