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There’s a lacerating but effective essay in this week’s New Yorker by Giles Harvey.  In “Cry Me a River:  The Rise of the Failure Memoir” Harvey writes “a growing batch of memoirs by literary screw ups and also rans suggests that mistakes, the bigger and more luridly described the better, might be a portal to success, or at the very least solvency, that eluded their authors the first time around. The formula is simple: when all else fails, write about your failure.”

His piece surveys a number of books, but his immediate target is Benjamin Anastas’s TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE, which chronicles the painful decline of a once-promising novelist’s literary career. Anastas published his debut novel when he was 28, and three years later published a follow up work. Both books were well received and he (cue warning music) quits his day job to write full time. Things go south from there: Anastas cannot sell his third novel in the US, he cheats on his fiancée, confesses, she marries him anyway, only to leave him shortly thereafter for another man while pregnant with Anastas’ child.  And yes, Anastas is bitter.

Much as he disapproves of the “mawkish exhibitionism” displayed by Anastas and his ilk,  Giles reserves some of his contempt for the publishing industry. “Anastas is a casualty of the a new publishing model, whereby editors, instead of allowing novelists to evolve and build an audience in the course of several books, bet big on debut writers and hope for overnight success. Those who don’t turn a profit are often shut out… the memoir provides a back door into print.”

I think Giles makes some good points in his piece. He’s quite right that houses are keen on the tabula rasa that new writers represent, reluctant to publish books by authors whose numbers have the “wrong kind of momentum” (i.e. a declining sales record) but I am not sure that I see memoir as a back door into print. In my experience, literary memoir can be as tough a sell as literary fiction, sometimes tougher, since the conventions of nonfiction publishing often require authors to have platforms. Literary novelists are still, for the most part, granted a pass.   It’s also hard to lay the blame at the feet of editors, who tend to advocate for their authors regardless of the sales. Indeed, I know several who advocated themselves right out their jobs.  So who do we blame? The profit-minded publishers whom the editors report? The marketing and publicity teams who are accused of having undue influence on publishers? The media conglomerates who own (and often sell) their book divisions? The reading public who fails to reward talented writers by buying their work? The antiquated return system that allows booksellers to ship back any unsold quantities? Amazon, who is underselling the competition and challenging the pricing structure? I could go on, but I’d only run out of fingers to point.

It is, however, worth noting that Anastas’ new publisher, New Harvest, is the Harcourt Houghton imprint fed by Amazon’s publishing arm. There’s an extra little frisson (or knife twist) in that Anastas’ critique of establishment publishing is the work of the very company that is, for good or ill, threatening to remake it.

What do you think? I’ve not yet read Anastas’ book and once I do, my opinion may change. But it seems to me that plenty of good memoirs have been generated out of other sorts of failure stories—romantic, familial, financial—so I’m not sure I see anything especially ignoble about this particular variety.

2 Responses to

  1. Kevin A. Lewis says:

    This kind of drivel has been popular for quite awhile; (I suspect Oprah shares more than a little of the blame; Million Little Pieces, anyone?) it’s not too far from what Anton Zandor LaVey observed back in the day, that “Everyone needs to have someone to look down on,” or words to that effect. Some people read this stuff to validate their own failures and screwups, and publishers know that this sort of insecurity can be a payday with the right amount of promotion. I think this kind of writing is very close to selling your soul to the devil, as it just makes the world a dumber and less interesting place to live in…But that’s because someone sat on me when I was a baby, thereby sending me on a fruitless lifelong quest for vengeance that began as soon I could talk, which finally ended in a transcendant moment of self-realization in a pouring rainstorm as I stood over the grave of the guilty sitter, whom I’d missed by 35 years… Are we talking bestseller material here or what???

  2. EDWARD says:

    Originally there was the “upside pyramid of compensation” to describe athletes. Those at the top got huge compensation at the expense of their less talented coworkers at the bottom. Washington, D.C., Hollywood, and academia soon followed. Now it is everywhere. Anybody who doesn’t like this system of compensation is branded a socialist. He or she is also marked as a person who doesn’t have what it takes to be at he top of the pyramid. Although there are many different people playing in this tiny game, they all have the same philosophy: big dogs eat first, little dogs go hungry.

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