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.