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The Modern Memoir

“I can’t believe that we’re on the fifth instalment of my autobiography. As usual with me, the three years since my last book, You Only Live Once, have been a rollercoaster ride. There’s always drama with a capital D in my life. Always.” 

Believe it or not, this is not, in fact, from the writings of St. Augustine in his Confessions, widely regarded to be the earliest example of the written memoir. Nor, in all honestly, is it the writings of one Katie Price, whose name – through some bizarre process of association – happens to be on the cover of the bestselling Love, Lipstick, and Lies. Whilst these masterworks of the Western canon are over 1,600 years apart, their similarities are startling: St. Augustine’s declaration of ‘Lo! My infancy died long since, and I live’ is surely no different to Katie Price’s revelation that ‘Now I’m older, wiser, with two marriages behind me and on to marriage number three.’ Add in a ‘Lo!’ and Love, Lipstick, and Lies may as well have been written by what Albert C. Outler, Ph.D, professor of Theology at the Perkins School of Theology, Dallas, Texas calls ‘the first medieval father of the Christian church.’ 

What could be called The Confessions of Katie Price (Vol. 5), is situated in a long tradition of celebrity autobiography and memoir, which underwent a so-called ‘memoir boom’ in the 90s. What changed during this period, following the increased financial pressure on publishing conglomerates to earn back the swathes of cash they were investing in these memoir writers, was the relationship between the writers and celebrity. Katie Price, according to my parents, was a celebrity long before the publication of her initial autobiography, Being Jordan. This was the trend for memoir prior to the genre’s boom in the 90s: well-known figures would write their life-and-times, attracting a huge audience of fans to buy said life-and-times, queueing for autographed autobiographies of their favourite writers and politicians. These writers and politicians, however, were not so keen to have their ‘serious’ endeavours associated with the kind of genre once sold in pharmacies due to its lack of appeal: condoms and piles cream were not, apparently, the kind of market with which Sigmund Freud wished to be associated. 

So, what’s a publishing company to do? Celebrities won’t become memoir writers; why not make memoir writers celebrities? Fool-proof! During the 90s, the airways were ruled by The Oprah Winfrey Show and the like (the enduring legacy of Oprah’s influence is evident in that Microsoft Word dares not regard her name as a spelling mistake), where these common-or-garden memoir writers could talk to the woman herself and inform eager audiences about the kind of issue raised in their writing. The memoir genre, like Buffy, very much grew up in the 90s. These books would often centre around an individual during a specific moment in their life, a moment that would give a subjective experience a topic with wider social implications like domestic abuse, for example. The writer would then tour with their book, which would be used to open up the kinds of discussions surrounding these topics on shows like Oprah and would inevitably make the writer into a kind of figurehead for their particular area of discussion. The life-and-times of these everyday people, focusing particularly on the ‘times’ where their individual life merged with a wider socio-political point of contention, were seen as a way for the general public to ‘understand’ the issues facing their society. 

However, there was inevitably a backlash against the experience of an individual being used to address such serious issues. Memoirs, the argument ran, are sentimental, subjective, and have no place in wider social discourse: Frank McCourt’s depiction of abuse, alcoholism, and poverty in Angela’s Ashes –  one of the most notable cases of this personalised history – was considered too, well, personalised, to properly address the political conversations it was voicing from its place on the bestsellers list. 

Modern memoir, then, has had to position itself against this backlash against the personalisation of politics. Notably, Juliet Jacques’ Trans: A Memoir acts as a self-reflexive discussion of the memoir genre itself. Infiltrating her subjective life story as a trans woman with accurately researched academic discourse on ‘the history of the sex change’ and ‘the politics of life writing’, Jacques educates her readers on the very genre in which she is writing. Trans writers, following the backlash against the memoir boom, were only expected to write memoir; to conform to a traditional story of transition and refrain from any political discussion about the oppression affecting these lives on a systematic level. Jacques uses Jan Morris’ Conundrum as the blueprint for these schematised, apolitical memoirs to which trans writers have been confined. Her publishers would not accept the kinds of politically charged, theoretical discussions she was pitching. Whilst the title declares the work ‘a memoir’, Jacques is rebelling against the genre from the inside out, refusing to conform to the personal/political binary that had been shaping the reception of memoirs over the decades. In a similar vein to Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, Jacques uses the memoir form to write from the margin of society, to argue that the individual stories of oppressed people can, and must, be seen as holding political weight: ‘the personal’, she argues ‘is political.’ These modern memoirs act as a meeting point between literary and political criticism. It is easily to see the links between the personal/political divide and the debates surrounding identity politics that are so florescent today. Modern day Margery Kempes, writers like Satrapi and Jacques believe in the political power of a single voice but are also keenly aware that their voice does not represent a community: it is this tension that forms the social, literary, and political landscape of the memoir genre. The lives of these women, whilst perhaps not Drama-with-a-capital-D, can hold the potential for positive social change, even without features from Peter Andre. 

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