Thursday, May 7, 2009

Memoirs And Reference Books Are Entirely Different Things

My blog series on the most common problems I found in the self-published, non-fiction books I recently judged for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards continues. In part one, I discussed books written by authors who are not qualified experts in their chosen subjects. In part two, I wrote about authors who come across as dabblers or flakes in their author bio. Today, it’s about memoirs masquerading as reference books.

As with all the posts in this series, since I’m not allowed to reveal identifying details of the actual books I reviewed, the book names and specific contents discussed herein have been fabricated. While they serve to illustrate the types of problems I saw, they are not meant to refer to any real books.

Reference Books Are Supposed To Inform AND Educate

The jacket blurb describes Bicycling To Victory as a book filled with insight and advice for the competitive cyclist, and since it was written by a world-champion cyclist, there’s no reason to doubt that jacket copy. But in the book, the author merely relates his experiences on the competitive cycling circuit. No explicit advice is given, and at no point does the author finish up his retelling of a given incident by pointing out what he learned from the experience.

The cyclist has written a memoir, not a reference or educational book. His fans and fans of the sport may find the book interesting, but since it’s classified and described as a reference book, anyone who buys it is probably expecting to gain some instruction and practical tips. Those buyers will be disappointed.

Your Experiences May Not Be As Fascinating To Others As They Are To You

A body shop owner writes Bringing Back Baby, a book about his experiences in restoring numerous classic and rare cars over the many years of his career. Each chapter covers a different car, first describing how the car was obtained and what was wrong with it, then explaining what the body shop owner did to fix it. For example, one of the cars was missing its original headlamps so the body shop owner had to scour the internet and junk yards in four states in order to find the necessary replacement parts.

However, the book doesn’t offer any kind of detailed, step-by-step directions for working on the cars, and there’s nothing unique or special about the various strategies employed by the author in locating missing parts and necessary supplies. Finally, since each chapter is about a different car, and each car requires a specific repair that doesn’t relate to any of the other cars in the book, the book can’t even stand as an overview of classic car restoration.

This is another memoir, just like the cyclist’s book, but it’s a memoir that isn’t likely to interest anyone but the author and the owners of the cars he restored. I saw several examples of memoirs that had been wrongly classified by their authors as nonfiction, reference books, the contents of which would only be of interest to people with a personal connection to the subject matter.

If Your Book Is A Memoir/Self-Help Hybrid, Don’t Leave Out The Self-Help Part

The memoir/self-help hybrid is an increasingly common type of nonfiction book, but again, your accomplishments and experiences in overcoming various challenges don’t automatically make a book based on those things a self-help book.

Reading With My Mind Shut relates the inspiring story of a man who overcame dyslexia and Down Syndrome to complete his education and eventually become a special education teacher. The book names the facilities and programs which helped him along the way, and describes his personal experiences with those facilities and programs. However, while the book may be a terrific memoir, it’s useless as a self-help book because it doesn’t truly offer advice or instruction to the reader. It’s only a self-help book to the extent the reader is willing and able to utilize the exact same facilities and programs in the exact same ways as the author.

In Dance To The Tune That’s Playing, the author provides a series of anecdotes drawn from her experiences as a social worker serving the needs of battered women. The jacket copy suggests the book as a self-help manual for battered women, their friends and family. Each anecdote follows the same pattern of building trust, identifying the client’s specific needs or fears, and serving those specific needs or fears. But because each client’s circumstances are different and the author’s methods for building their trust and serving them are different in each case, no general conclusions can be drawn by the reader. The author hasn’t presented her anecdotes in a framework of methodology or instruction, nor concluded each story with an instructional passage explaining how readers can extrapolate from the story to address their own issues. So while the anecdotes may be interesting or even comforting to the target audience, they aren’t “helpful” in the self-help sense.

Coming Up Next Time: Invented Ideologies And Lexica

1 comment:

Liz said...

Very interesting post. I had not considered that authors were trying to market, so to speak, their memoirs as reference books! You are so right about their being memoirs galore out there right now. I kind of go in phases where I'm really into that and others where I go for straight fiction. (and I must be one of the only people in America who found "A Million Little Pieces" completely unbelievable.) I did just finish a fun one, "Cornfield Heiress," by Errollynne Peters. She camptures growing up in the 60s (graduating from college in 1971, and the wild path her life took, including carnival worker, which I think is funny, and into battling cancer. It's sexy, it's funny, it's nostalgic and descriptive. Couldn't wait to get to where the next chapter would lead me.