Book of the Week: The Art of Memoir – Mary Karr

Memoir is now such a ubiquitous genre that it’s sometimes hard to believe its current popularity is a relatively recent development. You can pretty clearly trace it back to the 1995 publication of Karr’s The Liar’s Club (and shortly after, Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes.)

The Liar’s Club spent more than a year on the bestseller lists. At the time, Jonathan Yardley at The Washington Post introduced his review of the book by trying to put memoir’s then new popularity into context:

It’s difficult to get much perspective on large events when they’re happening right around you, but even from this vantage point it seems safe to say that literary historians of the future will look back to our times and remark upon two significant developments. One is the withering away of American literary fiction, a victim in part of forces beyond its control and in part of its own willful withdrawal from society. The other is the diversion of the confessional urge upon which literary fiction has fed into nonfiction, most specifically the memoir. Indeed, if matters continue at their present pace, the memoir may well be our most important literary form by the turn of the millennium.”

Twenty years later, that observation looks downright prescient. So it’s perhaps appropriate that Karr herself now weighs in on the role of memoir in our personal lives, contemporary culture, and our literature.

Don’t be tempted to think this is a just a craft book for aspiring writers–this is a craft book the way Stephen King’s On Writing was. By which I mean, that craft is an organizing point—but the book is so much more. It’s an erudite, generous and a wide-ranging look at memoir and how to approach it. Best of all is hearing Karr’s voice—hilarious, irreverent, and incisive. It’s an intellectual and literary pleasure.

The initial media line-up includes The NYTBR (review and feature), Fresh Air, Washington Post, WSJ, New Republic, Elle and O Magazine. It’s also an Indie Next Pick

[A]n instructive guide to the genre. Not only does Karr write exquisitely herself (and without pretense, often with raw authenticity—‘One can’t mount a stripper pole wearing a metal diving suit’), she clearly adores memoirs; the appendix of nearly 200 suggested (‘required’) memoirs is a delightful and useful bonus. The text is a must-read for memoirists, but will also appeal to memoir lovers and all who are curious about how books evolve….As if auditing her class, readers learn from her commentary on the memoirs of Vladimir Nabokov, Michael Herr, Frank McCourt, Hilary Mantel, and others. Karr lends her characteristic trueness and ‘you-ness’ to the subject of writing memoirs, wisely (and quite often humorously) guiding readers in their understanding and experience of the art.”
Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Karr’s sassy Texas wit and her down-to-earth observations about both the memoir form and how to approach it combine to make for lively and inspiring reading. A generous and singularly insightful examination of memoir.”
   — Kirkus Reviews

“A master class on the art of the memoir. ”
   — New York Times Book Review

“Mary Karr has written another astonishingly perceptive, wildly entertaining, and profoundly honest book-funny, fascinating, necessary. The Art of Memoir will be the definitive book on reading and writing memoir for years to come.”
— Cheryl Strayed

“For both readers and writers of memoir, this book is like taking a class from your favorite professor–but from the comfort of your couch and with no assignments! (Woo hoo!) I learned that in memoir, voice is one of the most important parts to get right, and this is something Karr has clearly mastered. Once you finish, you’ll want to start in one of Karr’s three previously published memoirs right away.”
— Ingrid Goatson, Boulder Book Store, Boulder CO

The Art of Memoir (9780062223067) by Mary Karr. $24.99 hardcover. 9/15/15 on sale.

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