Memoir: the new normal

May 28, 2015

If you want a snapshot of the next generation of Australian writers, then the Emerging Writer’s Festival, from May 26th to June 5th, is a good place to start. Although the program covers more than sixty events, with a wide range of topics and genres, it’s interesting to note that many of them relate to memoir: ‘Writer’s Memoir Night School,’ ‘#selfies,’ ‘Mixtape Memoirs,’ and ‘The Early Words – Writing & Family.’ Memoir has typically been the play pit of older writers, and the genre is often criticized for being self-absorbed. But these perceptions may well be shifting with the next generation of Australian writers.

The rise of 20-something memoir

Memoir has been booming since the 90’s, with the rise of the ‘nobody’ memoir. But the increase in young writers publishing personal narratives is a more recent phenomenon. Lou Heinrich, reviewing the rush of 20-something memoirs, explains: “Gone are the days when memoir was the sole territory of fading celebs and political backstabbers. Instead, in Australia at least, the landscape belongs to the young.” She cites examples like Lorelei Vashti’s Dress Memory, Luke Ryan’s A Funny Thing Happened on the way to Chemo, and Liam Pieper’s The Feel Good Hit of the Year.You could add Benjamin Law’s memoir, The Family Law, to the list, as well as Joel Mears’ collection of personal essays, We’re all Going to Die (Especially Me), and Oliver Mol’s ‘double coming of age’ memoir, Lion Attack!

It’s clear that young writers are increasingly gravitating to the genre. What’s less clearly defined is what has changed in the literary and cultural landscape to explain the sudden surge of young memoir. To find out more, we went straight to the source.

The communal diary & changing cultural norms

Luke Ryan (A Funny Thing Happened on the way to Chemo) and Oliver Mol (Lion Attack!) are two writers synonymous with young memoir. At a recent ‘in-conversation’ event hosted by Readings in St Kilda, they had a wide-ranging discussion on the highs and lows of a debut, the definition of non-fiction, and new publishing platforms.

In the Q&A that followed, we asked for their thoughts on the upward trajectory of young memoir. “People have always written diaries,” Oliver explained, “the difference is that now we have this communal diary called the Internet.” Although there’s a big difference between writing a diary and publishing it, Oliver believes in the flywheel effect: the more people who share their stories in the communal diary, the more it encourages others to share their own experiences, which in turn encourages others – and the flywheel gains momentum. Sharing personal stories, even amongst a peer group, legitimises those stories and places them in a broader context; it gives permission for new narratives to exist outside traditional memoir, providing a platform for new voices.  

Luke Ryan attributed the rise in young memoir to changing cultural norms. As he explains, “Our generation has grown up with the idea of self-expression. It’s something that we’re used to, something we’re comfortable with, even if our parents aren’t.” In his freelance writing assignments for major publications, he is often asked to write himself into the narrative, to relate a general topic on a personal level, “because that’s a more engaging way of telling a story.” The first person pronoun is “part of our language”.

Memoir: the new normal

The common theme underpinning their explanations is the normalisation of memoir, through greater access to publishing platforms and new cultural capital in the first person pronoun.

In saying all this, the genre still carries the stigma of self-absorption. In the introduction to Luke’s book, he is explicitly self-conscious about publishing a memoir. He writes, “I do, on occasion, feel a certain sense of apprehension that I don’t deserve to be writing a book about myself at the undeniably young age of twenty-eight. After all, who am I to tell you about life? What have I achieved?” This self-consciousness exists in part because there’s a lot of toxic, self-indulgent, poorly written memoir, both young and old. But the most recent young Australian memoirists have raised the bar; self-critical, self-deprecating, and curious about others, they have written highly personal, engaging and relatable stories.