For one brief week last month, teenager Maya Van Wagenan’s memoir Popular: Vintage Wisdom For a Modern Geek, recounting her journey to popularity in high school through the advice of a 1950s guide for young women, was a New York Times best-seller. Last year, she became the youngest non-actor to ink a feature deal with the major studio Dreamworks, and another book is on the way. While its time on the most coveted of best-seller lists was short (as it is for most new YA releases these days), its placement signifies the enduring appeal of that well-trodden path of memoirs: the “My Year With/In/As” project.
Julie Powell spent a year cooking from Julia Child’s The Art of French Cooking and became an instant best-seller with Julie & Julia (her follow-up about her time as an adulteress butcher wasn’t as successful). Elizabeth Gilbert’s spiritual journey across the world in Eat Pray Love even excited Oprah. A.J. Jacobs spent a year living biblically while Kevin Roose spent a semester at a conservative Christian university. Danny Wallace has practically built his career on this gimmick, from saying yes to everything to starting his own cult. The list goes on, as this one on Goodreads proves, and many of them became commercials smashes and equally successful movies. It’s an appealing concept for both writer and reader for a number of reasons.
The idea gives the writer an instant structure to work with, something that many of us spend the entire writing process panicking about. Despite the irregularities and unpredictability of real life, a lot of these memoirs follow a similar narrative: the dissatisfied writer makes a decision to do something wacky or liberating for a year, the initial rush of enjoyment, the midway slump, the questioning of the decision, then the montage friendly rebuilding to an emotionally fulfilling finale. It’s a Hollywood structure, and deliberately so. Even the most unadventurous individual can find enough material for 300 pages or so from a year of unconventional goings on.
These sorts of stories also act as a kind of fantasy for the reader, which is hardly a new thing given how many genres have made their money from a self-insert element, but such memoirs also come with the added benefit of being true (or at least “true”). If Elizabeth Gilbert can spend 12 months taking in the foreign delights of the planet then so can you (if you get your publisher to fund it with a $250,000 advance). Julie Powell managed to motivate herself to cook hundreds of complicated French recipes from her tiny kitchen – maybe I can too!
It can be a fun experiment for those who choose to go through with it but in many instances the experimenter is not a willing participant. After Piper Kerman was sent to prison for a crime she committed over a decade previously, she recounted her experiences in Orange Is The New Black. The same principle of a kind of literary tourism applies to such memoirs, only without the fantasy element. Journalism has its foundations in this kind of method reporting – from Hunter S. Thompson immersing himself in the culture of the Hells Angels biker gang for his non-fiction debut to Barbara Ehrenreich’s year on the breadline in Nickel and Dimed to the entirety of Vice’s journalistic model.
While many writers are praised for their wholehearted dedication to fully immersing themselves in their roles, others have slammed their gimmick as just that. The privilege of their plight is always evident – it’s hard for it not to be when you’re reading the tale in a book you bought from Amazon or Waterstones. They’re praised for taking a brief trip, usually with a safety net, into the kind of difficulties millions of people live with every day without praise or support. In order to shine a light on such toughness, the torch of privilege is the preferred tool.
It’s cultural tourism more than anything else, one that both the writer and the reader can take part in. The artifice will always be looming overhead on every page – no matter how realistic the story seems, it is on some level just a story. An editor crafted the narrative into something readable, a publisher created a publicity campaign to appeal to certain base instincts and desires into order to create the most profitable story possible, and the chances are somebody suggested the idea behind the book with their eyes on the prize. Even Maya Van Wagenan’s guilty of this, or more accurately her parents are since they found the popularity guide for her and suggested she do the experiment. While her book has been praised for its sincerity and humour despite its frustrating issues, it’s an idea that clearly appealed enough to some readers and executives to get them to put money on the table. As long as the traditional Hollywood structure retains its popularity, the touristic experience offered by these gimmicks will continue to thrive.