Vulture

Skip to content, or skip to search.

chat room

Memoir: A History’s Ben Yagoda on What Is ‘Nearly the World’s Oldest Profession’

Sarah Palin’s crash-memoir, Going Rogue, which arrived in stores today, may be the least mavericky thing she’s ever done. As documented in Ben Yagoda’s perceptive, thorough, and amusing Memoir: A History, memoir-writing is very nearly the world’s oldest profession (way older than fiction). And nearly every mortal sin that’s afflicted the genre — lies, oversharing, score-settling, pandering — has been condemned as a sign of the apocalypse ever since the days of St. Augustine. Yagoda explained to us the extent to which we’ve been there and done that.

We couldn’t help but notice your editor also published James Frey’s second memoir. Of course you deal with Frey (unsparingly) in the book. Coincidence?
You know, that’s the origin of the book. [Riverhead publisher] Geoff Kloske had the notion, while he was observing reactions to James Frey — and I agreed with him — that something was missing in the equation, that it’s more complicated than just “why can’t it be fact-checked and it’s terrible.”

Well, it certainly doesn’t seem so shocking after reading your book.
Human nature is such that sometimes people will lie to get the result they want. There are a number of cases back through the early nineteenth century, and in the twenties there was a series of scandals. I would take it back to the mid-1700s. Robinson Crusoe and other Defoe novels were in the form of autobiographies, but no one knew what they were. There wasn’t a bookstore with a novel section and a memoir section.

Why did you spend so much time on religious books?
If you look at the recovery memoirs of today, they come out of seventeenth-century spiritual conversion narratives. You know, "I was a sinner," with a lot of detail paid to the sinning, because, you know, it sells and it reads well.

But no doubt there were never quite this many. What used to be an autobiographical first novel now usually comes out as straight memoir. Is that a bad thing?
I would argue that it’s a net plus. It’s much harder to write a pretty good novel than a pretty good memoir. When you are writing in the memoir form, you really know the material. There are so many mediocre autobiographical novels of yore.

Does Palin’s attempt fit into the category of “campaign memoir”?
It’s more the celebrity [genre]. The interest is based on her as a celebrity — of whatever sort she is. It was amazing how fast it was done. I can only imagine how many typos will make it through, though people don’t mind too much about that.

Did you actually read all these memoirs you describe, like Martin Van Buren’s 1,247-page autobiography?
I power-skimmed it, as with many books. I’ve written these books — and each time I say, “Next time, I’m going to write about something really bound, not endless.” The last one was about the parts of speech (If You Catch an Adjective, Kill It) and the one before that was [about] The New Yorker (About Town), which came out every week for, like, 75 years. I have this bookcase at the back of my house with about 200 memoirs that I’m going to give away to the library, because I don’t want to look at them anymore.

Photo: Marie Yagoda