Imperative: The Pressure to Be Exotic

Azita Osanloo
From the September/October 2006 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Let me be the last—the absolute dead last—to point out that we're in the midst of a memoir craze. My favorite form of procrastination used to be computer solitaire, but now I prefer to chat on the phone with my writing friends and discuss the ongoing boom in autobiographical literature. We speculate like housing developers prognosticating on the real estate market. Will the bubble pop? Will prices continue to rise? Will market trends ever again veer toward literary fiction?

For new authors concerned with their hoped-for star magnetism, memoir becomes the publishing world's version of reality television.

For those weary of the memoir boom, take comfort in the support of your forefathers: Faulkner wished "to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books." When Maupassant refused to have his portrait appear in a series of paintings of famous writers, his comment was that "a man's private life and his face do not belong in public." And Flaubert once said, "The artist must make posterity believe he never lived."

The artist must make posterity believe he never lived?

While the literary purist may find comfort or, at the very least, a kind of implicit support in the words of Flaubert and company, he'll also find that the joke is on him. One hundred and fifty years after Flaubert lived, and seventy-seven years after the publication of Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, the publishing industry increasingly resembles the façade of Hollywood, a world where only certain kinds of artists get their names on the marquee. To boot, before acquiring a book, publishers have already begun to factor in the potential media persona of a publishable author. In her report for the National Arts Journalism Program, Best and Worst of Times: The Changing Business of Trade Books, 1975–2002, Gayle Feldman, a veteran of the publishing industry since 1976 and a recent contributor to Publishers Weekly, wrote that "whether publishers like to admit it or not, an author's telegenicity, promotability, and age enter increasingly into the acquisition equation, particularly for new authors whose careers need to be ‘made.'"

Though Feldman herself doesn't make the argument, the connection to the memoir trend can be directly drawn from her observation: For new authors concerned with their hoped-for star magnetism, memoir becomes the publishing world's version of reality television. The best way to sell one's story is to sell one's story. Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop—the Martha and George who "conceived" JT LeRoy—did just that, creating a character whose grim life experience held such prurient appeal that even some of our most celebrated writers and editors couldn't resist the package.

The pressure emerging writers face to sell themselves is compounded by the depression of literary fiction in the market today. It is stressed over and over again, at literary conferences and in MFA programs, that publishers are no longer buying short story collections. As if that weren't troublesome enough, emerging writers today are often told that literary novels remain on the chopping block at most publishing houses. The message has led to a growing anxiety among young writers, many of whom now ask themselves, "How do I become a published writer?" rather than the time-honored question, "How do I become a better writer?"

The paradox that further intensifies this anxiety is that MFA programs are proliferating, rabbitlike, every year, graduating more and more would-be published authors. Furthermore, the numbers at several programs suggest that prose applications almost double those of poetry. So there are more and more prose writers (anxiously wondering how to get published) entering a marketplace that, increasingly, tosses traditional narrative fiction in favor of memoir.

To be fair, most writers (MFA-bound or not) have embraced or at least come to terms with the writing life—and the dedication to the art form it requires. Still, we aspiring writers are nothing if not tenacious, and ever more ambitious. While the names James Frey, Nasdijj, and JT LeRoy will surely go down as catchphrases for fabrication in the memoir genre, my growing fear is that those writers may only exist as the extreme cases among a generation (admittedly, my own generation) of writers who are tempted to dangerously and falsely exoticize their identities for the purpose of promoting themselves to agents and editors. As more and more emerging writers are warned—often before pen has even hit paper—of the difficulties they'll face with agents and publishing companies, more of them will inevitably be seduced into presenting themselves as rare birds (albeit supremely marketable ones).

These days, not only must the literary purist make posterity believe he did indeed live, but if he wants to find an agent, receive a decent advance, get published by a name house, and endear himself to a marketing and publicity team that will ensure a prime spot on the front table at Barnes & Noble, positioning his book to climb the sales ranks and thus securing a contract for his next book, he needs to make posterity believe—by writing it in his latest memoir—that he lived more dysfunctionally, more tragically, more multiculturally, more exotically than anyone else.

It's a pressure I've experienced firsthand (and the irony of leaning on personal experience to bolster my argument does not escape me.) Over a month ago, while visiting Seattle, I ran into an old friend with whom I had attended my MFA program. She and I hadn't been in touch over the last couple of years, so we caught up on people we both know: the woman who had finally sold her novel, the guy who had bagged it all for a law degree, and the two poets who had married each other. When we got around to chatting about our latest writing projects, she asked me, without mincing words, why my novel wasn't an autobiographically inspired story of a young Iranian-American woman.

"That's so big right now. You could get published—like that!" she said with a snap of her fingers.

Our conversation wasn't the first I'd had on this subject. About midway into my MFA degree, right on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I came to fully realize how my ethnicity and its appeal in the literary marketplace potentially threatens me as an emerging writer. As a first-generation American, the daughter of Iranian parents, I've been advised by peers, professors, two agents, and one editor to cash in on the latest boom in Middle Eastern literature, particularly in memoir-driven literature. In a way it makes sense. I can almost see the display at Barnes & Noble, where my book would be placed next to Azar Nafisi's Reading Lolita in Tehran (Random House, 2003), Azadeh Moaveni's Lipstick Jihad (PublicAffairs, 2005), and Marjane Satrapi's truly remarkable graphic novel, Persepolis (Pantheon Books, 2003). The problem is that I can't in the least imagine the book I'd have to pen in order to be given a place in that company. Would it have lots of italicized foreign words interspersed throughout the prose? Would I open with a passage on veiled women and Persian rugs? None of my advisers has ever paused when I admit that my understanding of Iranian culture is mostly limited to my favorite Iranian foods. Additionally, my grasp of the Persian language is, at its very best, limited to casual conversation (with a particular emphasis on the dirty words my mother teaches me). In these moments I truly wonder if, to my colleagues, I am an Iranian first—all the evidence of my innate Westernness notwithstanding—and a writer second.