Apparently the James Frey "kerfuffle" has yet to have much of a dampening effect on the production of memoirs:
Literary agents say they're seeing more memoir manuscripts and proposals than ever. Lee Gutkind, founder of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction and a professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, says he gets 300-400 memoir submissions each month unsolicited, for his publication, which comes out three times a year. This reflects a change in the whole publishing climate, Mr. Gutkind says. In the past, writers would break into the business with autobiographical novels, and move on to other sorts of fiction. Now, "the novel's not hot anymore, and the autobiographical novel has been replaced by the memoir." Memoirs have become "the new door opening for first-time writers, young and old," he says. . . .
Gutkind's comment (and the article as a whole) does perhaps help explain the popularity of memoir. It appeals to the sort of reader and, more importantly, the sort of writer for whom writing is primarily a mode of "expression," a way to affirm the self, draw attention to one's own "life story." (Which is not to say that the memoir is inherently an inferior form or to deny that some writers have produced very fine books using the form.) For those perhaps too modest to push themselves onto tv directly ("Several trends are driving the popularity of the memoir today," this article goes on to say. "One is the public's continuing fascination with reality TV"), memoir is perhaps a somewhat more respectable substitute. And if in addition it lands you an appearance on Oprah, all the better.
That "In the past, writers would break into the business with autobiographical novels" is undoubtedly an accurate statement (especially if your goal is to "break into the business," rather than, say, create an accomplished work of fiction), and futher reminds us that even among those authors ostensibly writing fiction, depicting one's life story has always been perhaps the most immediate impulse motivating many, if not most, "first-time writers." An interest in peeking in on such stories is probably the motivating impulse for most readers of fiction as well (at least those readers interested in what is called "literary fiction"). Except now they have books that can satisfy that interest more directly, without the intervening demands of fiction (although apparently these books can make a few things up), and undoubtedly such books will continue to attract readers, as well as writers, for whom emotional directness (through vicarious drama) is the preeminent value, while those of us more interested in fiction as aesthetic invention will watch as books written to embody this value go on losing their market share.
Which might not be such a bad thing. Readers who want their books to be continuous with their television habits will get what they want and will presumably put less pressure on fiction writers to obsess over personal dramas. Writers who feel the need to "express themselves" can do so without restraint; those who really are interested in fiction as a literary form that transcends preoccupation with self and provides a kind of pleasure separate from the voyeurism encouraged by memoir might be able to pursue this interest with a clearer sense of their actual audience. In other words, those of us who prefer serious fiction, tiny remnant though we might be, would be able to indulge our vice without all of the interference and distraction brought to bear by the "book business."