WRITERS DIGEST: Why Is Memoir the Rodney Dangerfield of Writing Genres?

When I stopped to sign books at Barnes & Noble in NYC, the bookseller asked where I’d like it shelved. My memoir, A Boob’s Life, had been out in hardback for several months, so the question surprised me.

First, they walked me to the shelves labeled “Biography,” where celebrity faces smiled back from the book jackets. Then we headed across the aisle to the shelves labeled “Nonfiction,” where I recognized two of the sources in my eight pages of footnotes. Frustrated, I asked where my book would sell the most. They had no clue.

While the combination of personal experience and cultural research made my book tricky to categorize, what bothered me most was that the largest retail bookseller in the country lacked a section on memoir, where readers could find it. That makes memoir the Rodney Dangerfield of mediums. For those of you too young to have seen Carson or Caddyshack, Dangerfield is a comedy legend famous for saying “I don’t get no respect.”

Despite the growing numbers of people writing memoir and the proliferation of classes and workshops, its place near the bottom of the pecking order seems firmly entrenched. When the LA Times Festival of Books came back to its full glory this year, I was thrilled. I’d been involved with the event for several novels.

Naturally, I hoped that the brand new, expanded paperback edition of my COVID-release hardback could get me in. What was I thinking? Of the 500+ authors advertised, less than two dozen wrote memoirs. Of those, celebrities got all the attention.

Why don’t memoirs get more respect? Because women are writing them. The trickle-down effect of #timesup is slow, especially in the publishing world. Yet that isn’t stopping women from scribbling away, signing up for classes, and pouring their hearts out on the page. Why?

Memoir is women’s history. It reveals our lives more than any other medium. The rise of independent publishers do-it-yourself technology is indicative. Thousands of women are willing to pay to have their voices heard. And we should be listening.

When I was in elementary school in the 1970s, every class had weekly visits to the school library. There were shelves packed with biographies, full sets featuring the lives of presidents, war heroes, and inventors. There were six—count ‘em, six—biographies of women: Betsy Ross, Clara Barton, Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Pocahontas, and Harriet Tubman. While these women’s lives were inspiring, we never heard about their lives at home. Or any of the women at home. That’s where most of the women lived.

During high school—pre-Internet—it took extensive research to compose essays about accomplished women. The popular biographies showcased women going mad, like I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and The Bell Jar. In college, I did a summer school minor in women’s studies at UC Irvine. There was one Women’s History class that included names I’d never heard. That department has now been folded into gender and sexuality studies with the catalogue description of “woman, gender, and sexuality as ‘objects of study.’”

When I spoke about body image to students at Rutgers University, I learned that this is a typical rebranding. It made me smile to see that even while being inclusive, women stepped aside politely, marginalizing our own stories.

There are several obstacles to calling memoir women’s history. Girls and grown women have long kept diaries and journals, but these are private. We don’t often have the letters and published documents available to biographers. History, a record of significant events, generally applies to those grand and public. Women’s history, like our work in the home, is largely invisible.

First used in 1970 in Robin Morgan’s Sisterhood is Powerful, the word “herstory” is described in the Oxford dictionary as being coined by “militant feminists.” Clearly, the writer saw women marching together as threatening. Feminists, those of us with breasts, are generally opposed to any violence that threatens the babies we bear. And yet war is a supremely popular topic for books. “Herstory” seems it will never be a match for history.

Remember when Enid, in the 2001 film Legally Blonde, wanted to change the word “semester” to “ovester?” That was not a joke written for the movie. Amanda Brown, the real-life Elle who wrote the novel the movie is based on, knew a woman at Stanford Law who pushed for that change for three years. The joke was that she thought it would make a difference.

Creative nonfiction, the department that includes memoir at most MFA programs, wasn’t an official category until the National Endowment of Arts established it in 1990. And it still didn’t stick. Several years later, poet Mary Karr’s breakout memoir, The Liars’ Club, won a PEN prize for nonfiction. Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes: A Memoir–with that description right in the name–won the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.

Despite the award categories, when I work with new writers, I point to these as examples to illustrate the difference between biography and memoir. If your life is a house, a biography shows the whole house. A memoir is one room of that house. You get to choose what door to open, to curate your experiences to make a point. After triggering a boom in memoir, Karr and McCourt went on to write more.

Yet in 1997, Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott published a scathing critique of this new category of creative nonfiction. Worse, an illustration was labeled with that most humiliating of all accusations: navel-gazers. That expression has stuck ever since. Mostly, it sticks to women.

Here’s the thing about navels. By definition, they are a scar from the umbilical cord that connected us to our mothers, the previous generation of humans. For women they foreshadow our biological connection to the next generation. What could be more important, with higher stakes, than the life and death dramas inherent in the navel? These are the true battle scars of our lives.

When I wrote my first memoir in 2003, my husband accused me of navel gazing before he even read it. Sure, he wanted me to turn off the computer and make dinner, but it hit me where it hurt. Where I was most vulnerable. My biggest success was biological, as a mom. Why wasn’t that enough? And who was I to think anyone else would care? I felt both insecure and vain—a painful combination.

1 Comment

  1. Lynne Moses on June 21, 2023 at 11:56 am

    Such important points, Leslie. Thank you for speaking out. Culture is the like an ocean liner. It changes course slowly, but it can be turned with enough steady pressure. Your voice is an important part of the push.

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