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How I Evaluate Memoir

I receive more memoir than anything else--perhaps more than everything else combined. But it is difficult to place and requires more effort than other genres, so I'm very picky.

When sending me a memoir, please bear in mind that I only take on memoir when I feel I absolutely must--when the idea that someone else could represent it makes me hugely jealous. Memoir is harder to sell than general nonfiction and extra work to represent, because of the necessity of editing the full manuscript, so I'm very conservative. I often reject things that I imagine the right agent could sell. (Indeed, I've hated many successful published memoirs...but most that I have loved have also been very successful, which is why I have confidence in my judgment.) If I reject your memoir, it's only because I'm confident that I'm not the right agent for your project.

I tend to be interested in relationships, conflict, characters developing, American experiences. I like accessible writing--nothing fancy, but nothing clunky. I often like memoirs about illness, memoirs that use something concrete and external as the occasion for their discussions of character (such as a hobby or a game or a pet or a trip). It's very cool to make me laugh, to use an unusual structure to good effect, and/or teach me something about life--but not by overt didacticism and usually not by giving facts. I like memoir for what an insightful and talented writer can bring to processing her own experiences.

Some memoir subgenres that I tend not to like:

Abuse Memoirs
Abuse has long been hot; take heart that you'll find an agent other than me. I rarely like abuse memoirs because reading about innocent suffering depresses me, and it's not as though I need to put myself through this in order to know I oppose it. If you're writing about abuse, if you give few details of the abuse itself (check out Julia Scheeres' gorgeous Jesus Land for how little you need to tell your reader to give us the whole…or, for that matter, Good Will Hunting), but a lot about its effect on you, then maybe you can try me.

Substance Abuse Memoirs
Another hot subgenre that I generally don't like much. I don't know, I guess I'm just tired of them. Or I don't get them, since my personal enjoyment of addictive substances is limited to chocolate.

Memoir About Family Experiences
If you're not the main character but your mother or grandfather is, it never seems to work out. Believe me, I get it, part of me thinks my grandfather Lou Epstein was about the most interesting man that ever lived. Here's an exception that proves and clarifies the rule: I loved Helen Fremont's After Long Silence. The impact of her parents' experience on her own life is so much a part of the book that I could be very interested in her parents' experience even though she didn't bring the insight of the eyewitness.

All this said, if you do secure my representation for your memoir, you'll have the benefit of having an agent who is devoted to the genre. Most of my reading for pleasure is memoir, and I'm very passionate about the ones I love, including those in my stable and those that aren't.