The grow­ing in­flu­ence of per­sonal mem­oir

Read­ers are en­deared to the clas­sic hu­man el­e­ments that shape this cat­e­gory of books

Toronto Star - - SPECIAL REPORT: WORLD BOOK DAY - JEFF MA­HONEY SPE­CIAL TO THE STAR

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.

So-called “in­spi­ra­tional mem­oirs,” such as My Se­cret Mother by Phillis Whit­sell, are grow­ing in pop­u­lar­ity.

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