Judging by the crowds at the 2 sessions on memoir I attended at the Perth Writers Festival last weekend, I need to get a more interesting life so that I can write about it. Forget making people up and writing a novel about them, real people and their oh-so-real lives are the things readers seem to want.
Of course, there could have been other factors at play. The first session on memoir writing that I went to featured two writers whose books are heavily promoted as being all about sex. Marieke Hardy, one of the featured authors, was at pains to protest that her book wasn’t about sex because it had only two sex scenes. Yet the scene she chose to read to the audience was about her and her partner going to a swingers party. For a book that’s not about sex, it seemed an odd choice to make. Well, perhaps not really given that as authors, we’re all there to sell books. You read the section that you think will make more people head down to the Dymocks tent at the end of the session. And of course sex always sells. And sex plus memoir (i.e. real sex, not made-up fictional sex) is the headiest of combinations.
The other session on memoir that I went to was more serene by comparison. Not serene when it comes to crowd numbers – there was standing room only at the hall – but serene when it comes to memoir topics. No sex this time, there was simply alcohol addiction and violence. There was also Alice Pung, and I can understand if all the people there had come to see her. She writes memoir, but it seems to be more than that – she writes about the lives of others who are important to her, notably her father. Perhaps because of this, her work looks out beyond the interior life of the author and tries to reach into the story-hearts of others.
It’s not that I’m against memoir – I regularly bang on about how wonderful Joan Didion is and much of her work could be considered memoir. Memoir’s power is its inherent realness, whereas fiction, even the most real-feeling novel, is always imagination. But the thing that most struck me at the festival on the weekend as I watched people stream into the sessions on memoir was the reduced crowd numbers at other, arguably more meaningful, sessions.
For instance, I went to a session looking at ‘Women’s Work’ – possibly the title turned most people off as women+work is definitely not as sexy as a swingers party. The session was chaired and argued by four intelligent women who all had thought-provoking things to say, things that matter – or that should matter – to the lives of most women. But there was probably not even one-quarter of the number of people there as were at the memoir sessions.
It was a little dispiriting. I teach classes in memoir writing, I know how keen people are to read and write memoirs but maybe we’re all looking inside too much, at our own lives, and forgetting about all the other lives that exist beside ours. We’re forgetting that sometimes more is achieved collectively than individually, that reading an anecdote about someone’s sex life might be good for a giggle but it doesn’t change the world.