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Women have been writing memoirs since the 14th century, most notably Julian of Norwich (1342), Margery Kempe (1373) and French Princess Margaret of Valois (1553). The autobiographical memoir was a format that allowed them to use their voices in spaces that banned them from speaking. Today, women continue to use the memoir to make themselves heard, to take ownership of their stories and to finally control the narrative. Overall, women’s share of published titles has increased from around 20% in the 1970s to over 50% by 2020. By 2021, female-authored books sold more copies on average than those written by men.
Yet, most men don’t seem to be reading books by women. The top ten bestselling female authors, including Jane Austen, Margaret Atwood and Jojo Moyes, have a readership made up of 81% women and only 19% men. In comparison, the top ten bestselling male authors, including Charles Dickens, JRR Tolkien and Stephen King, are read by men and women almost equally (55% men and 45% women). Ultimately, men are far less prepared to read any books authored by women, nevermind their personal memoirs, than women are to read books by men. Journalist, screenwriter and author Dolly Alderton’s award-winning memoir Everything I Know About Love was hugely successful, a Sunday Times bestseller and adapted into a major BBC One series, but received very little interest from men. She told The Guardian that her book was “marketed and perceived and received as something incredibly niche by dint of my gender. Yet a female experience is not a niche experience; it’s a universal common interest.”
Not only does men’s resistance to or simple lack of interest in reading books authored by women confine their experiences of the world to ones viewed only through an almost entirely male lens, but it also enforces the precedent that the work of female writers is worthy of less respect. It’s a recurrent theme throughout time; most of our history has been written by men about men, so that women, alongside immigrants and minorities, vanished into insignificance, their perspectives missing from the literary canon as well as from history. The memoir serves to rectify the invisibility of the oppressed and acts as a passage to finally communicate their stories and make their voices heard.
It’s important to note that memoirs are not autobiographies, although they share many similarities. While the autobiography portrays a comprehensive account of someone’s life, the memoir instead allows the author to relate and reflect on experiences from their own life, a series of formative experiences or notable memories that impacted the author in some significant way. Derived from the 15th century Anglo-French word memorie, meaning ‘something written to be kept in mind’, the memoir focuses on the author’s thoughts and feelings about these events, how they have been impacted and changed, and the important lessons they have learned from experiences which have become integrated into their life.
The memoir has always been and continues to be a popular genre, appealing to readers through its brutal honesty, authenticity and recognition of unique personal and cultural perspectives. From Maya Angelou’s memoir I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings to Sarah M. Broom’s Yellow House, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking and Roxane Gay’s Hunger, women have harnessed the power of memoirs to tell their own stories and offer solidarity and reassurance to others with shared experiences. Although sometimes dismissed as performative and embarrassingly indiscreet, with some authors (mainly celebrities) coerced by large advances to reveal secrets the world really doesn’t need to know, the memoir genre has evolved and become something more expansive and impactful. While we can’t ignore the success of Prince Harry’s record-breaking memoir Spare this year, showing the basic irresistibility of secrets, drama and a bit of gossip, women appear to be the ones to truly define and make waves within the genre, testing the boundaries of its form and helping it to evolve.
Juliet Jacques’s Trans: A Memoir is a poignant example of the modern memoir, which fully confronts and rebels against a genre believed to be solely about the personal and arguing that the personal is political and that the two are not mutually exclusive. Jacques was expected, as a trans writer, to conform to a blueprint, to focus on telling the story of her transition and stop short of opening up the conversation to discuss anything about the adversity affecting lives on a systemic societal level. She subverts the common assumptions of this literary form and uses it to write from the margin of society, representing the necessity of the stories of oppressed and minority individuals to be regarded as holding political weight.
The range of captivating, inspiring and genre-bending modern memoirs authored by women is remarkable: graphic memoirs, such as Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis; memoirs on grief, such as Michelle Zauner’s Crying in H Mart; critical theory, such as Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts; memoirs on abuse and trauma, such as Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House; and family and cultural history, such as Jung Chang’s Wild Swans, which traces the transformations of twentieth century Chinese history through the lives of three generations of Chinese women. Dorit Sasson opted to self-publish her memoir, Accidental Soldier, which tells the story of how she dropped out of college and volunteered for the Israel Defense Forces in an effort to change her life and establish an identity separate from her neurotic mother. Sasson is the first woman to describe in detail her experience as a soldier in the Israel Defense Forces. The depth and breadth of these works within the genre showcases women taking ownership of their stories in unique and uninhibited ways, reflecting on their lives and exploring their identities while, in most cases, addressing vital societal issues that are universally relevant – understanding themselves and their experiences in a greater context.
In 2021, it was reported that memoirs and biographies for young adults grew 26% in sales revenue over the previous five years. It certainly feels like there has been an emergence of younger female voices in the memoir genre during this time and more recently, with the success of titles such as Malala Yousafzai’s unforgettable I Am Malala, Chanel Miller’s powerful Know My Name and the recent #BookTok phenomenon and provocatively titled memoir I’m Glad My Mom Died by Jennette McCurdy. It is typically assumed that memoirs are written by those over the age of forty, those with more experience and wisdom of the world that validates publication of their book. However, millennial memoirists are defying this conventional perception of memoir-writing, arguing that age is of little importance when it comes to the richness of their experiences, the messages they wish to convey and their storytelling abilities. Young women travel the world, battle with mental health, endure devastating loss and hardship, overcome addiction, prove the impossible possible, and constantly stand up for what they believe in. So why should their age stop them from writing about such experiences?
Although technically a celebrity memoir of sorts, McCurdy’s I’m Glad My Mom Died is a prime example of a book by a millennial memoirist that brings something new to the genre while dealing with difficult topics of parental abuse, eating disorders, mental health and the dire effects of child stardom. Her memoir is beautifully executed, cleverly balancing hard truths with dark humour, masterfully embodying the childlike voice of her younger years and acknowledging the emotions she experienced at the time with cold candidness. McCurdy’s memoir appeals to both readers with or without prior knowledge of her as she opens up crucial conversations on taboo topics and reassesses the pedestal on which we place mothers in society. All major retailers sold out within a day of its release, proving that young women have equally powerful, important and illuminating stories to tell and people want to listen.
For a long time, women have been silenced. And in some areas of the world, they still are. The memoir is a literary form that allows readers to immerse themselves within the life, even the soul, of another. It holds value in speaking truth and encouraging sympathy, in opening the eyes of others to important issues so prevalent within society that have too often been ignored. Women adapt, subvert, expand and break the memoir in ways that empower their voices, that tell their stories and reflect their individuality. As we see the rise of women, no matter their age, courageously speaking out through memoirs, we hope to see a rise in men reading them too.