One of the best books I read last year was Susan Cain’s Bittersweet. I loved it for the topic and the compelling question that drove her to write it: “Why do we love to feel sad?” But it also puzzled me. In the book, Cain shares fascinating research and interviews with experts on emotions and how we create meaning from suffering. But it’s also highly autobiographical, exploring Susan’s own relationship with bittersweet music and memories, particularly her painful and poignant relationship with her mother.
On my bookshelves, I usually organize my nonfiction books into two categories: informative nonfiction and creative, or story-driven nonfiction. But when I went to shelve Bittersweet, I had to pause and think about it. Was it a memoir? Yes. Was it informative? Also yes. Where should it go?
Cain’s book isn’t alone, either. Michelle McNamara’s I’ll Be Gone in the Dark started as investigative journalism into the story of the Golden State Killer, but acquired a memoir spin when the killer himself found out about her project and began contacting her with clues and information to aid her research. I also recently read Jennie Agg’s book, Life, Almost, which is a beautiful and moving story of her struggle with recurrent miscarriages while also an exploration of the biology of miscarriage and our medical failures to solve this problem. I’m seeing more books like this signed in Publishers Marketplace, too, such as Christina Rivera’s forthcoming My Oceans, which merges both her experiences in motherhood and her research on endangered marine life.
These books are a hybrid of two very distinct genres: memoir (a sub-category of creative nonfiction) and investigative journalism (a sub-category of prescriptive nonfiction).
Genre is such an important consideration in writing because it sets readers’ expectations. Most readers want to know generally what to expect when they buy a book—and if you read 1-, 2-, and 3-star reviews on Amazon, almost all of them are a reflection of disappointed expectations in some way. So authors need to know what readers’ expectations are for the books they’ll be writing, and those are primarily determined by the genre.
The expectations for memoir are very different from the expectations for investigative journalism.
For memoir, readers expect:
For investigative journalism, however, readers expect:
You can find more in-depth guidance on the investigative journalism genre in the excellent book Story-Based Inquiry by Mark Lee Hunter, which is available for free in the Unesco Digital Library.
Most importantly, memoir is about the author’s transformation, while investigative journalism provides a transformation for the reader. Investigative journalism explores a topic specifically because of its universal impact, while memoir purposely zeroes in on just one person’s experience. Inherently, there’s a conflict there. How do you make them work together?
I find it’s actually fairly common for authors to want to merge memoir with another informative nonfiction genre—but usually, I see this attempted with self-help, rather than investigative journalism. The thinking is, “I’ve been through this hard thing, and I can teach other people how to get through it as well.” However, authors trying to merge memoir and self-help face a similar dilemma because self-help is also about the reader’s transformation, while memoir is about your transformation.
So again, the question is: How do you make them work together?
There’s one rule you need to know about genre mashups:
In other words, you have to prioritize the reader’s journey above your own. You have to choose a structure that feels intuitive to the reader—and that structure might not neatly mirror your story. Sometimes, authors get lucky and their story does neatly fit into a structure that makes sense for the reader. This is the case in Jennie Agg’s book, where the book follows the timeline of a typical pregnancy to explore what can go wrong at each stage and how the medical field responds—while also sharing her own experience of pregnancy at each stage. It’s also the case in Michelle McNamara’s book, where she becomes, in essence, another expert with first-hand knowledge of the subject.
But often, our personal stories don’t match up with the needs of the reader. Bittersweet, for example, doesn’t follow a chronological account of Cain’s relationship with her mother. Instead, it’s organized into three parts, each exploring a different question relating to bittersweetness:
Imagine yourself in Susan Cain’s shoes. You’ve had a hard relationship with your mother and you have an interesting story of how you came to reconcile the light and dark in your relationship. Most first-time authors would simply plunge into their own story, instead of thinking more expansively about the much broader question of bittersweetness and framing the book around that exploration.
And there wouldn’t be anything wrong with making it a straight-out memoir. There are lots of memoirs that are exactly right as memoirs. But, her story, while no doubt compelling and interesting in her own life, is pretty common. I shared last week that if you don’t have an extraordinarily unique memoir story, one of the ways to add a unique angle is to put on your investigative journalism hat. That’s what Cain is doing here. She realized that there’s this more universal question around bittersweetness that she could explore.
The consequence of finding that unique angle, however, is that the structure had to change. The reader’s journey to understand bittersweetness had to come first before her own story.
This can be hard for many first-time authors. The temptation is to “write what you know,” which in most cases, is our own story. And often that is a good first draft place to start. But, as I’ve said many times, readers are inherently selfish—as they have every right to be. They want to know how this is going to apply to them. Your story, while very meaningful and interesting to you and likely your family, isn’t necessarily meaningful and interesting to a wide population of readers who don’t know you personally. Great memoirs are exceptions to this; they usually tell an exceptionally unique story that readers can also find themselves in. They are both entertaining and relatable.
But most memoirs are not great memoirs.
Authors, too, want as many readers as possible to immediately see the relevance of their book so that they’ll pick it up and buy it. Susan Cain is an experienced author—her previous book, Quiet, is a bestselling self-help book—and so she understands how to frame books so that they’ll appeal to as wide an audience as possible. If she had written a memoir about her relationship with her mom, it might have sold well, mostly because she’s Susan Cain and I have no doubt it would have been a well-written memoir. But would it have been an Oprah’s Book Club pick and a #1 New York Times bestseller? In my opinion, unlikely.
By bringing in the reader’s perspective and broadening the scope of her book, she immediately made it more universal and interesting to a much bigger potential audience.
The lesson here? Merging memoir with investigative journalism may be an incredible way to bring in a wider audience for your book and tell a more compelling story. But if you do that, then your story becomes a tool for the reader’s benefit—not catharsis for you. Great authors recognize this and submit themselves to the rule of genre mashups: that the reader’s transformation always takes precedence.