Memoir, Straight Up

Posted on by Sandell Morse

Last night after watching the film, “The Artist,” the beautiful many layered story of a silent film star tossed aside when talkies come in, I slept badly, dreaming of closed doors, a filthy outhouse. I awoke disgusted, climbed out of bed, walked downstairs in the dark and made myself a cup of coffee.
I’m a writer of a certain age, trying to bring a literary memoir to publication which in today’s publishing climate seems to have as much relevance as a silent film. Five years ago, my credits in literary magazines, Ploughshares, the New England Review, the fact that chapters from this book have been published, one winning a prestigious award, would have made an agent notice. Now, few agents answer my queries, and those few who do, send a polite, but form rejection.
The culture has gone visual, and ironically as movie and television screens have grown larger, the book has grown smaller becoming an image on a laptop, an iPad, an iPod. Is the book dead? I don’t think so, but I do think traditional publishing is not only in transition, but as Steve Almond said in a recent seminar I attended, “crumbling under the weight of its own inefficiency, and what’s suffering is anything literary.”
In my query letter to agents, here’s the way I describe my book: Girl Wrapped In A Curtain is a scene driven 78,387 word literary memoir that explores the complexity of love between a father and daughter. That day, sitting at the table with eleven other writers, all of us trying to figure out how to publish our books, traditional, electronic, small press, do it yourself, I nearly laughed out loud. Literary, once a respected word, was now the kiss of death.
I don’t even want a big New York publishing house. I’d like a small press, but I still need an agent and agents keep their eyes on the big houses, going to smaller presses later. Agents and editors say what’s selling are celebrity memoirs and memoirs with a hook, which means sensational, ie abuse, addiction or mental illness. My book is my story of coming to love my difficult, mean, charming, manipulative, narcissistic father. He is my Rochester; I am his Jane, for Dad is ninety-one, half-paralyzed, bedridden, incontinent and demented with startling moments of clarity and dying when, finally, he lets me into his life. Is he conning me? He’s that kind of guy.
So, who’s my audience? All of us out there who will be, who are, who have cared for aging parents.
Back to “The Artist.” Leaving the movie theater with me, my husband said, incredulously, “That was a silent film.”
Yes, it was. A modern silent with the old embedded in the new. My book is memoir, straight up. I’m not claiming the artistry of “The Artist;” yet, like the silent film star in the movie, who needed to find his way back into film, I need to find my way into publishing my literary memoir. 

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