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Book stack. 5 Literary Memoirs and What Made Them Bestsellers
memoir

5 Literary Memoirs and What Made Them Bestsellers

Sade Omeje formerly assistant editor at Fourth Estate now editor at The Novelry
Sadé Omeje
July 7, 2024
July 7, 2024

If you’re thinking about writing a memoir, or a story inspired by your life, or you want to know the difference between memoir and narrative non-fiction, read on—in this article, The Novelry editor Sadé Omeje, who joined us from HarperCollins, shares the five hallmarks of a bestselling literary memoir.

Before joining The Novelry, Sadé edited and acquired manuscripts at two imprints of HarperCollins simultaneously: 4th Estate, home to authors including Hilary Mantel, Anthony Doerr, Jonathan Franzen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yiyun Li and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as the imprint William Collins, home to authors including Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Christina Lamb, Elizabeth Hinton, Max Hastings, Mark Carney and Kathryn Mannix.

Sadé has worked with wonderful writers all over the world, from war correspondents writing short story collections, and the 99th employee at Tesla writing about building one of the most recognizable companies today, to magical literary writers crafting manuscripts full of imagination. She is passionate about the transformative power of storytelling and has worked on a diverse array of fiction and non-fiction projects, featuring acclaimed authors such as Coco Mellors, Emmanuel Iduma, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Joyce Carol Oates, Rodrigo Garcia and Jonathan Escoffery, among others.

Here, Sadé examines the craft of five internationally bestselling literary memoirs:

  • This Ragged Grace by Octavia Bright
  • Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner
  • I Am Still With You by Emmanuel Iduma
  • How To Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair
  • Educated by Tara Westover

What is memoir?

Memoir is one of my favorite genres. Outside of the world of fiction, and even narrative non-fiction, memoir offers something so incredibly unique that I wanted to explore what it is that some of the bestselling literary memoirs have done well, and why I’m not the only one who loves them.

Memoir and narrative non-fiction—what’s the difference?

Memoir as a genre can sometimes be difficult to initially differentiate from other non-fiction forms, such as narrative non-fiction. However, my understanding is that narrative non-fiction, or what’s known as literary non-fiction, is a true story written in the style of fiction. The prose is compulsive, but factual, and strung together through the narrative literary techniques the writer adopts for their work.

Narrative non-fiction conveys real life stories or events with a style of prose that reads like a novel.

It can often be a true account of another person’s life or a cluster of figures and/or true events, like Olivia Laing did with The Lonely City or Sally Hayden did with My Fourth Time, We Drowned. Narrative non-fiction, therefore, often requires more research and refinement in order to bring the details of another person’s life together in a factual yet compelling, propulsive way.

Memoir, which stems from the Latin word memor, meaning ‘to remember,’ is exactly what memoir is: an act of remembering and stringing together these memories into a narrative.

Memoir is a first-person account of your own story, and emotional truth is often the basis for this genre.

Readers expect and are aware of the subjectivity of the prose.

Think about times when something happened to you, or you witnessed something, and all of the other people involved have a different account of this.

For example, imagine as a child at the seaside you swam further than you ever had before. It was a scorching day, and you’d arrived at the beach with your family, the cold blue sea stretched out ahead, and the feeling of pure, unbridled excitement was washing over you. So you ran. You ran toward the sea, and the sand was hot on your bare feet, and when you reached the water’s edge you continued without hesitation, swimming further and further out than you ever had before. For you, the truth of that memory is how free and joyous you felt. For your mother, her truth is absolute, unabated fear at you being so far out because she could see the swell of the waves picking up further to the left. For your sister, her truth of that memory is a slight resentment at your self-indulgences before everyone has had time to unpack all of the food and water and lay out the throw. For your dog, well, maybe they’re running after you, barking loudly, wandering what on earth must be coming after you to make you run so quickly! And for the lifeguard, well, it’s just another day.

What I’m trying to demonstrate here is that from one memory there are multiple versions of the truth, and with memoir, you’re telling yours. And it isn’t just a play-by-play of the events either, it’s exploring the why behind these memories; why they connect within the arc of your narrative to reveal something about you and your life. It’s an extremely reflective process, like a quest, but for this story, the journey is inward.

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Hallmarks of a bestselling memoir

1. Strong writing

There are several key factors that contribute to making a literary memoir a bestseller, and almost all of them adopt, in some way or another, this reflective tone.

Take, for example, This Ragged Grace by Octavia Bright. In her memoir, Bright reckons with addiction, the self, hope, love, and loss in your twenties and early thirties. As she begins to remember things, her father, battling with Alzheimer’s, is beginning to forget. Through rich prose, intelligent writing that ‘is a kind of grace in itself—light and deep and beautiful’ (to quote the brilliant Deborah Levy), Bright is able to craft vivid scenes and poignant moments over seven years of her life—seven years of sobriety.

Her insights attract discerning readers, those looking for more than the generic when it comes to reflecting on addiction, grief and identity, and the bestselling memoirs often do exhibit and place an emphasis on strong writing, with a clear attention to style, pacing and language that’s used throughout.

2. Social or cultural relevance

With memoir being so rooted in the personal, along with strong writing, authors that are able to grasp outwardly toward themes with clear cultural and social relevance can be just as impactful as those that follow more stringently the path of thinly disguised solipsism (which is still really fun to read!).

When I read the first sample of Emmanuel Iduma’s I Am Still With You, I was immediately taken in by the way he had adopted to weave in the personal with the political, and make large things connect in small, simple ways. The pitch was his return to Nigeria after years of living in New York, in search of his lost uncle, his namesake Emmanuel, who disappeared during the Nigerian Civil War in the late 1960s. I was steadily drawn in by the political reckoning, about memory, war, loss and grief, and about the silence that exists, nationally and within the interiority of family, from speaking about such suffering.

When memoir taps into current cultural or social issues, as Iduma does when opening with the EndSARS movement in Nigeria before plunging back into the same country’s history of the 1967 Civil War, he offers an opportunity for readers to engage with and understand not only that country, but the world around them more widely.

3. Universal themes

This brings me to another crucial element that all bestselling memoirs do well, which is the use of themes that are universally understood, even when the writer’s life may seem so removed and so different from your own.

For example, when Tara Westover published Educated, this sold incredibly well across the market, even though Westover was clearly exploring an upbringing so unique to her that, outside of the universal elements to her narrative (the power of knowledge, the instability of memory, conflicting identities), readers might not have a clear point of attachment to her story.

When I asked editor Josie Humber what she liked about it, she said: ‘It had so much drama to it, it almost read like a thriller. I’d be gasping out loud at some of the stuff her dad did and the danger he was putting them all in (huge near-death accidents where he wouldn’t let them them go to hospital). And then I think learning about a totally different world (strict Mormonism and doomsday preppers) was fascinating. And then it had the redemptive thread of her leaning into education to pull herself out of the isolation she grew up in, which gave the book hope and a feeling of good triumphing over evil.’

For Josie, it was these crucial themes that meant the book resonated, and for author Katie Khan, she ‘really liked the fact Tara Westover had clearly overcome the adversity of the premise by writing the book. As a reader, I can be turned off by too much bleakness in a story, especially in non-fiction, and yet the very bones of this memoir are triumphant. She overcame a survivalist family in the mountains who would not let her attend school, to not only get an education, but also to write a book! Her triumphant overturning of adversity is right there in the title and on the cover.’

Again, it’s these universal themes of overcoming adversity, the power of knowledge, and resilience that have allowed Westover’s memoir to become a bestseller across the world. Through tackling such broad themes, Westover is able to appeal to a broader audience and transcend the specific details of her life, and at times, speak to larger ideas.

4. Relatable storytelling

At its core, memoir is a story. It’s a narrative with a clear message, and the most successful ones are constructed with some of the same elements as any fiction book: a clear arc, conflict, and final resolution.

Whether it’s reflecting on addiction and sobriety like Bright, or a journey of discovery and history like Iduma, or a tale about overcoming adversity like Westover, the narrative is and should always be absorbing. Readers of memoirs are often looking for reflections of themselves through the author’s story, and that’s why memoirs like Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner, which at its heart is a story about a mother and a daughter, can become such a well-known, well-loved bestseller.

For Zauner, it was her mother’s diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer that forced a reckoning with her identity and brought her to reclaim the gifts of taste, language, and history her mother had given her. In her memoir, Zauner shared an incredibly intimate, personal, yet totally relatable story about mother–daughter relationships; the passionate attachment and bubbling rage, the comfort and affection, the exasperation and frustrations. It meant that a simple story (and what we sometimes say in publishing) ‘had legs,’ because it was relatable to so many readers.

5. Authentic voice

Finally, something that all bestselling memoirs have is an authentic voice that resonates with readers.

In How To Say Babylon by Safiya Sinclair, her unique perspective and emotional connection to the material shines through. As a poet, her style and voice is shown clearly and captivatingly on the page, making for both a lyrical yet honest account of her life. Reckoning with the culture that initially nourished but ultimately sought to silence her; her memoir is a reckoning with patriarchy and tradition, and the legacy of colonialism in Jamaica. Through opening herself and her past up in such a way, readers are drawn to this honesty and vulnerability and are able to discern the emotional connection she’s drawing out of the story. Naturally, any reader can appreciate the courage it takes to share a personal story, so the building of emotional honesty and depth in the pages goes a long way in capturing your audience.

It’s my feeling that, as is the case with many stories, there are multiple factors that add to the commercial success of any book. There are more practical measures, like marketing and PR, as well as any in-built platforms a writer might have, not to mention stellar reviews and endorsements from other well-known writers or figures that inevitably lend credibility to the material and attract readers, but from a narrative perspective, these are some of the points I find crucial to the actual writing. And I hope these few examples might help you in considering what your memoir might need more of, or might be doing brilliantly so far!

For more insights into literary techniques, coaching and a supportive writing community, join us on a creative writing course at The Novelry—the world’s top-rated writing school.

Someone writing in a notebook
Sade Omeje formerly assistant editor at Fourth Estate now editor at The Novelry
Sadé Omeje

Before joining The Novelry, Sadé edited and acquired manuscripts at two imprints of HarperCollins simultaneously: 4th Estate, home to authors including Hilary Mantel, Anthony Doerr, Jonathan Franzen, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Yiyun Li and Joyce Carol Oates, as well as the William Collins imprint, home to authors including Brian Cox, David Attenborough, Christina Lamb, Elizabeth Hinton, Max Hastings, Mark Carney and Kathryn Mannix.

Members of The Novelry team