At its best, autobiography or memoir offers what C.S Lewis called "extension of being." Reading a memoir, we escape from the limits of our own experience to inhabit another consciousness, another sensibility—another world, it sometimes seems, though it's our common life in this one world that enables us to enter imaginatively into life stories very different from our own.

Precisely because the memoir is potentially so rich, true lovers of the genre have been dismayed in recent years by the rise of the memoir industry—let's call it Memoir Inc.—and its braying flacks, the supreme example being James Atlas, who presided over a special issue of The New York Times Magazine (May 12, 1996) titled "True Confessions: The Age of the Literary Memoir."

In his own lead-off contribution ("The Age of the Literary Memoir Is Now: Confessing for Voyeurs"), Atlas managed to include all four of the founding distortions endlessly recycled by Memoir Inc. The first is that we are witnessing an extraordinary profusion of memoir-writing. "Consider the evidence," Atlas writes: "nearly two dozen memoirs are being published this spring, with more to come, supplementing the 200 titles—by one book review editor's estimate—published last year." And this is evidence of what?

Americans, famous and obscure, have been writing memoirs, confessions, full-scale autobiographies, and personal narratives of all sorts for a very long time now—long before the "trend" trumpeted by Atlas. Indian captives, former slaves, spiritualists, baseball players from the dead-ball era, police detectives, and countless people who have found Jesus or been found by him: they have all told their stories.

Yes, there have been some best-selling memoirs of late—The Liar's Club, Angela's ...

Subscriber access only You have reached the end of this Article Preview

To continue reading, subscribe now. Subscribers have full digital access.