The literature of our time: Memoirs
I just finished a little book called Pandora’s Seed. It discusses the effects of the agricultural revolution, and how, specifically, those changes are effecting us now and will in the next 100 odd years. It’s not a great book, but it has some useful information, especially in the first three chapters. It quickly loses focus after that.
It is also an exemplar of something that I’ve been noticing for the past decade or so. Virtually every non-fiction book that I read which isn’t a textbook is half a memoir. They contain huge personal anecdotes, they contain extraneous information which is irrelevant to the subject matter. I don’t care if the guy who discovered X is blond and energetic with wind blown salt and pepper hair and a way of bobbing his head that is reminiscent of macaws. Nor do I care about your plane journey or the woman who died on it, it’s not relevant. It does not matter. Nor do I care about the beautiful aquamarine bay. It’s not relevant. Stop wasting my time.
The virtually mandatory writing advice of the day is to make everything “a story” and to personalize everything. Now, I agree that stories are good, but there are many types of stories. Stop sticking your personal story into the story of innovation, or agriculture, or whatever else it is. Anecdotes should illustrate something larger, if used at all.
This is new. The great books of a generation or two ago, say Jacobs “Life and Death of Great American Cities”, did not do this.
I feel like almost every non fiction book I read these days is a good two or three times longer than its actual, real, content justifies. They meander, they plod, they slough off on tangents which are, well, tangential.
Again, this is not to say that anecdotes and stories are bad, just that they must be well chosen. It is very rare that a non-biography should include a lot about the author’s life. And every book should not be a memoir.
Just stop, already. Say what you have to say, make your story about the subject of your book, not about you or about “the intense green eyed scientist in the rumpled lab-coat.”
It’s padding. It wastes the author’s time and the reader’s time.