The growing influence of personal memoir
Readers are endeared to the classic human elements that shape this category of books
With World Book Day in Canada upon us (Saturday), a quick glance at the Toronto Star’s bestseller’s list (non-fiction) confirms a growing trend: personal memoirs are hot.
Atop the current ranking is Phyllis Whitsell’s My Secret Mother, a truelife account in the inspirational mode. Whitsell, a nurse from Birmingham, England, tells the story of a girl placed in an orphanage from the age of 8 months, then adopted and later told her birth parents had died of tuberculosis. Suspecting the latter not to be true, the author embarks at age 23 on a search for her biological mother.
Following closely behind My Secret Mother on the bestseller’s list is Paul Kalanithi’s When Breath Becomes Air, a memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis.
“Memoirs and biography are always popular but this — the inspirational variety of memoir — relates to a genre of memoir. Stories everyone can relate to,” says Brad Wilson, editorial director of HarperCollins, who brought My Secret Mother to Canada from England, where it was published by Times Mirror. “We would call it extraordinary stories from everyday people. These are the people next door, so to speak, but they do extraordinary things or have extraordinary things happen to them, there have been real difficulties, and there’s a redemptive element to the story.”
Further to that element of redemption, personal memoirs tend to embody virtues that endear themselves to readers: humility of circumstance, resourcefulness in the face of adversity, a measure of courage, culminating — if not always in triumph — in a hard-won accommodation with whatever life has thrown the protagonists’ way.
The boost in popularity could arguably be traced back to Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, which has sold more than 10 million copies in North America alone. Wilson also points to Dave Pelzer’s memoir of childhood abuse, A Child Called It, as another important work in this tradition.
There is little doubt of the category’s growing popularity. Total sales across North America increased more than 400 per cent between 2004 and 2008, according to journalism professor Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History.
In Canada, personal memoir accounts for a small percentage of total book sales, sitting at between 1.2 and 1.6 per cent, but it is a consistently growing share. Just a few years ago, sales were less than 1 per cent, according to Zalina Alvi, marketing and communications manager with BookNetCanada.
Wilson at HarperCollins is certainly onside. The publisher has a number of recent and upcoming memoirs, including The Child Bride by Cathy Glass, Secret Child by Gordon Lewis, The Little Prisoner by Jane Elliott and My Secret Sister by Helen Edwards and Jenny Lee Smith.