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Everybody has a story -- but is it worth telling?

  • Story Highlights
  • Market is overflowing with memoirs
  • Many present stories of overcoming challenges
  • Popularity perhaps due to same voyeuristic impulse fostering reality shows
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By Todd Leopold
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(CNN) -- Everybody wants to leave their mark. Nowadays, that means everybody is writing a memoir.

Publishers accepted more memoirs in 2007 than debut novels, according to an industry newsletter.

"For whatever reason, many people have gotten the idea that they want to write a book," says Jerry Simmons, a former New York publishing executive who now counsels publishing hopefuls and runs the writers' networking site "Everybody has the feeling their story is unique and different."

Memoirs rose in popularity during the '90s on the backs of such books as Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." Now they're in such demand that, in 2007, more memoirs were accepted by publishers than debut novels, according to Michael Cader's Publishers Lunch newsletter, reported USA Today.

Current memoirs in the top 10 of The New York Times' hardcover list include Julie Andrews' "Home," David Sheff's "Beautiful Boy," Jose Canseco's "Vindicated," Tori Spelling's "Stori Telling" and Valerie Bertinelli's "Losing It." The top two books on the Times' paperback nonfiction list are also memoirs -- Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin's "Three Cups of Tea" and Elizabeth Gilbert's "Eat, Pray, Love." Both have been on the Times list for more than a year.

Publishers' recent releases include memoirs by a featured player on "Sex and the City" who suffered from leukemia (Evan Handler's "It's Only Temporary"), an Italian praising his food-loving homeland (Sergio Esposito's "Passion on the Vine") and a woman coping with divorce (Theo Pauline Nestor's "How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed").

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Those stories are often attempts to be uplifting and optimistic, narratives of hope after crisis. "You can read about someone who has survived poverty or addiction or worse. It's a way to neutralize shame and stigma. And in the end, the stories are often hopeful and inspiring," Nan Graham, editor-in-chief of Scribner, told USA Today.

Author David Shields more acidly boils these books' themes down to "I survived, you can, too." Despite their popularity, he's skeptical of their value.

"The moment you open up the book, you know the pain has been resolved," he says. "They're too much founded on a corny notion of resilience and triumph, which force them into false resolutions" -- not the uncertain realities of life, he says.

The sheer abundance of memoirs is something relatively new. Not so long ago, fiction was still ascendant; indeed, many books now judged to be heavily autobiographical, such as Jack Kerouac's "On the Road," were written as novels.

Indeed, books pitched as novels -- Simmons mentions James Frey's now infamous "A Million Little Pieces," which was later revealed to have falsified material -- have been retooled and marketed as memoirs, leading to a number of scandals. Photo Interactive: Famous memoir scandals »

Why such popularity? Patsy Vigderman, a professor at Ohio's Kenyon College, believes there are parallels between the memoir's popularity and the rise of reality TV.

"For some reason, people right now are gripped by the idea that [it's better if] it's really true," she says. "Memoirs are a form of self-display."

She doesn't think much of the majority of memoirs published nowadays, the survival stories trumpeted by Graham. She used to teach a course in memoir and autobiography, but has changed her focus to "fiction and other hybrid forms," asking her students to look at writing that crosses borders, she says. "To be able to turn your life into something as fiction is a very different project than simply telling your story," she says.

However, Simmons says that great writing, on its own, isn't a selling point for publishers. "You can sell a good story, but you can't sell great writing," he says. "It's the kiss of death to put the label 'literary' on something."

Shields says it's a basic human fantasy to want to leave a piece of yourself behind after you go, though he's suspect of its value.

"Every person hopes to be remembered after death. To artists, it's a fantasy ... a transcendence of death," he says. "But now it seems like vanity." Shakespeare, he observes, may live on in his plays, but almost 400 years after his passing, he remains dead, buried -- and unaware of his fame.

But Vigderman, though expressing concern about the "appeal to prurience" innate in a pop memoir, has a kinder view. After all, she says, a curiosity about our fellow human beings is as old as mankind itself.


She quotes another writer gone since the 17th century, the Japanese poet Basho, to stress her point.

"It is deep autumn," Basho wrote. "My neighbor/How does he live, I wonder." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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