Genre Confusion: Memoir vs. Nonfiction Narrative
Blogger: Janet Kobobel Grant
I regularly hear writers, agents and even editors misidentify what they are talking about when the discussion turns to narrative nonfiction and memoir.
The word memoir has developed cache in today’s market, which has resulted in many industry professionals using it as a catch-all word to communicate a personal story. But, in actuality, memoir is a subcategory of narrative nonfiction.
Both narrative nonfiction and memoir share these qualities:
- The manuscript is told as a story,
- with characters (actual people),
- a protagonist (generally the author or the subject of the book),
- a character arc,
- fleshed-out scenes,
- and a story arc.
In other words, both memoir and narrative nonfiction use fiction techniques to put the reader into the moment of the story. Think Seabiscuit or Unbroken, both of which required immense research but are told as gripping stories. They are examples of narrative nonfiction.
Narrative nonfiction could tell a story as an objective, journalistic piece, such as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. A memoir would not take that approach but is subjective, based on the writer’s perspective of what happened.
A memoir consists of not only a factual story but also:
- Generally is told in first person about an individual’s unique experience.
- Is swathed in lavish language. Memoirs are expected to attain a certain literary quality. Which is why, when a standup comedian writes a “memoir,” it’s highly unlikely to qualify for that label. His or her book is more likely to be an autobiography. But we don’t use that label much nowadays because “memoirs” are more sought after.
- Doesn’t usually tell the author’s entire life but instead portrays a snippet of it (the day the person happened to be in the twin towers and they fell down, then the aftermath in that person’s life).
- Tend to be more introspective than other narrative nonfiction.
Two memoirs that come to mind are Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.
If you’d like to check out Flavorwire’s opinion of the 10 best memoirs ever written, look here.
What’s your favorite narrative nonfiction and/or memoir?
Why might it be important to correctly label your manuscript?
What’s the difference between memoir and narrative nonfiction? Click to tweet.
Why do most publishers and authors label a book “memoir,” even if it isn’t? Click to tweet.