Tuesday, April 22, 2008

You Are Not Special or Inspiring

I would say that about 30% of our submissions are medical memoirs. Occasionally they're by doctors who want to bring someone to the public's attention, sometimes someone has a crazy medical theory, but for the most part they're people who have had or have some disease, disorder, or syndrome and have chosen to write about about it. That's all well and good, and inspiring stories about illness are important or whatever, but there are two aspects of it that particularly annoy me.

(1) The ones concerning psychiatric problems, unlike cancer or a disease, tend to fall in line with whatever is a trendy diagnosis in the medical world. Right now we're seeing a lot of bipolar memoirs, far more than we normally see. In fact it's gotten to the point where if I read a CNN health blurb about some disorder, I expect to see more queries about it in the next couple months. The article was written in response to a trend in diagnostics, which means more people were being diagnosed with that particular illness, which means more people who are writing their memoirs are going to say they have that illness.

I've singled out mental illnesses here for a reason: they adhere more to trends because the diagnostic procedures are constantly in flux. Unlike cancer, which is always cancer, mental health issues are simply harder to pin down. Many psychologists and psychiatrists think some of the less obvious categories (obvious categories being narcolepsy and pyromania) are not worth diagnosing. They would rather treat the patient by their symptoms and use therapy to get to the root of the symptoms than label it, but the labels serve a purpose. The patient wants the comfort of knowing their problem has a name, which gives it a legitimacy it might not have had before, and the doctor needs some guidelines on treatment methods, so names are assigned to a collection of symptoms which really appear in a lot of different disorders. Periods of mania followed by periods of depression might label a person manic depressive, but then bipolar disorder came along and some people felt it was separate, and then they classed it into type 1 and type 2, and then added a bunch of supplemental classes, and now after DSM-IV some people argue that manic depression might just be a sub-type of bipolar disorder. (This happens in other areas of medicine. One of my doctors feels strongly that Ulcerative Colitis, long believed to be unrelated to Crohn's Disease, is actually one of 5 subtypes of Crohn's Disease)

The results are good: Doctors learn more about the differences in subtypes and therefore how to treat them. However, it also means I'll see a huge increase of queries of people who for years have struggled with whatever depression and mania is currently being called. In our office we don't have a blanket policy about rejecting disease stories - in fact, many are requested - but we are used to seeing a direct response to medical trends in people's memoirs, which means the memoirs reflect not so much their personal struggle (which could be interesting) as what's popular in medicine (less interesting/relevant).

(2) Almost everyone feels compelled to add the line, "I hope to inspire/educate other people with this disease/disorder/syndrome." Altruistic or narcissistic? You decide. It's probably a bit of both. Not to knock on people with serious mental illness (having been misdiagnosed with a number of them myself by well-meaning doctors), but being sick is not the only requirement for writing a memoir about it. You also have to be a good writer and there has to be a reason why your story is something people would want to read. My boss does request a lot of these, which results in a high number of rejected partials, as it becomes plain within a chapter that the author has nothing special to contribute and is merely going through the chronological history of her doctor's visits and making mundane observations about the waiting room in hopes of making it seem real.

I have a personal beef with this, and I admit it outright. When I got sick ten years ago, a ton of people either recommended books to me or gave me books about either my disease or a more general book that was meant to be inspiring. I have a shelf full of them. It's never really stopped. Everyone from the person in the seat in front of me at synagogue to my hairstylist reads some book about illness, thinks of me, and then makes sure I hear about it at length while they're cutting my hair or running into me at the bagel line at kiddish. The more annoying people give me a copy, and then even check back two weeks later to see if I've read it, which means I have to read it or lie about reading it. I did read some of them, and the experience was mainly negative. Either I found them depressing, uninteresting, or irrelevant. In a few cases the author was clearly deranged. Some guy apparently cured his Crohn's by eating dirt, but if you read his story carefully, you'll notice that his doctors were just doing a terrible job and had he been seeing someone decent, he would have gotten treatment that definitely would have prevented him from being 80 pounds underweight (it's called intravenous feeding, dork).

All of these people are well-meaning, and have no idea how little interest I have in whatever book they think will inspire me. When I want to read about Crohn's, I go get a book and read it. Otherwise, I mainly listen to my doctor and have him explain things in detail, and that's enough for me. Beyond that, I have a life to live.

Over the years, many, many people have told me to write a book about my experiences, another line that pops up a lot in these queries. The response I give is always the same: "I don't think anyone would want to read it." Nothing about my personal medical history is particularly instructive or inspiring. I may feel differently in the future, but this is the way I've felt for awhile, and it's unlikely to change very soon. Just because something was traumatic doesn't mean people want to hear about it. There still has to be a basic story, even in a memoir, to entice people. It doesn't have to adhere to the basic conflict/action/resolution structure of a novel, especially with a chronic illness to which there is no resolution, but it has to tell the reader something other than "I was sick and here's what happened."

Also, change the names of your doctors or get their permission to use them. They wouldn't write a book about you and name names; you probably shouldn't do the same.


Anonymous said...

There was a time I found your blog to be useful. However, for some time now, your tone has been obnoxiously self-important. Even if the topic is interesting and helpful, I can rarely get through an entry without a cocked eyebrow. What gives?

The Rejecter said...

Huh. Well, fair enough. I mean generally when I go into my feelings on things (as opposed to just, you know, do this and do that) people comment that they find it more enlightening, so I try to do that, but it's hard to sort of measure my tone.

I'll be more on the look-out for that.

Anonymous said...

Your narcissism has clouded your ability to empathize with those who WOULD find value in the books written by those who are, in your view, neither special or inspiring. I've read quite a few of the mental health memoirs you so easily reject and what I've found in them is the meaningful revelation that there are others out there who know how this suffering feels. When one is in the throes of a a mental illness, it's quite common to feel isolation and confusion. If that sufferer can find solace or healing words in the pages of such books, even the suggestion of a "blanket policy" that repels this type of submissions is simply a disservice to the MILLIONS of Americans who encounter the diseases you reference so flippantly.

The Rejecter said...

Allow me to clarify:

(1) I do not reject based on my likes and dislikes. I reject based on my BOSS'S likes and dislikes, which means a lot of stuff ends up in the maybe pile that doesn't interest me but she might find interesting, and is, very often, medical memoirs. She certainly requests a lot of them, and I read a lot of medical memoir partials, to which I've very rarely given a solid "nay."

(2) I should also mention that these queries are immediately rejected are rejected not because the person is ill but because the person is a bad writer, and their query is boring, ridden with spelling and grammatic errors, or rambling and unclear. The point of the post is that serious trauma does not equal good writer. You have to have that skillset to produce an inspiring book.

(3) People who randomly push inspiring books on sick people are not necessarily aware of how much we may, in fact, hate those books.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted to say that I was Anon 3:20 (and the next Anon was somebody else...). I appreciate your answer to my question and do understand where you're coming from.


The Rejecter said...

Thanks, Anon 3:20. I had a feeling the two posts were separate people from the tone (that or I didn't answer the question correctly) but couldn't confirm it.

Shakier Anthem said...

Rejecter, while I don't always agree with you, I have to say that as someone who's had a chronic disease (lupus) for 17 years, I'm right there with you on this one. I've heard it put, "Just because it happened to you doesn't make it interesting." May sound harsh, but it's true -- of all memoir, not just medical stuff, though having a serious disease or condition is one of those big life events that spur people to write memoirs in the first place. But really, the same could be said for a divorce memoir, or an immigrant's memoir, or any other kind. *You need to have a story,* and a story is bigger than the sum of its events.

Chris Johnson said...

It's your blog -- write about whatever you like. I found it interesting and useful to read your perspective.

Melanie Hooyenga said...

I think you make several very good points here. My memoir is with betas and my biggest concern is whether or not I have enough of a story. My book is about me moving to Mexico with my husband while we wait for his greencard, and a side note is I had a cancer scare. So I guess it's a medical/immigrant/love story memoir. ;)

Anyway, no matter how extraordinary the events in your life may be, you have to be able to write it in a clear and INTERESTING way. I thought you made your position very clear in the original post and I always enjoy reading your blog.

Anonymous said...

Contrary to what the two anons said, I think your tone is great. I like the fact that you don't coddle people and try to be all sensitive and let them down easy. You're like, "Excuse me, you suck. Get over it. Next!" I don't see what the problem is.

Anonymous said...

For the record, I didn't find your post narcissistic either. It was a fairly simple statement to the effect that personal tragedy does not necessarily equal an interesting book. Not that people who go through such tragedy shouldn't write about it, or self-publish; they just shouldn't get their hopes up about mainstream publication in the absence of a compelling story.

Anonymous said...

With you all the way, Rejecter!

I was diagnosed with cancer about 15 years ago, and got a ton of unsolicited advice (drink this tea made from sticks! take shark cartilage pills! take this vitamin! no, don't take that vitamin! read this book! read this other book! etc.) as well as lots of book recommendations. Of all the books I remember being glad I read two of them (one of which was not just a cancer memoir but a cancer memoir by an oncologist, and had a ton of useful stuff in it).

People also started to say to me, after a while, that I should write a book. And at a certain point I actually tried, and quickly gave up when I realized that it wasn't that interesting even to me. I did recently write a short-article-length memoir about my experience with cancer, for the newsletter of an advocacy group I belong to, and got a lot of really positive feedback about it; but, since brevity is not by any means my forte, the fact that I managed to tell the whole story in a couple of pages says to me that there isn't really a whole book in there.

Medical memoirs aside, if more people recognized that they are not good writers, and took steps to do something about that before they started shopping their books, the world would be a better place ...

Oh, and chag sameach! :)

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I'm a literary agent who's been on both sides of the desk. After about 4000 rejections for my own MS I got a job with a reputable agency, 30 years in biz.

In 4000 e-mail queries, I found a single snotty agent. He's opened himself to humiliation one day, as this kind of hilarity can make valuable copy.

This is no 9-to-fiver. One is up 'til the wee hours looking for quality work. In 2000 queries I found a single potential -- who didn't even follow submission rules. This first-timer is now getting thumbs-up from several "Big Guys." That's good writin'.

This is what puts food on our tables. Nobody I've rejected has got anywhere so far. We all keep watch to see how right or wrong we are.

Writers who have time for bitterness can't be very certain of themselves.

We get TONS of proposals from self-healed or been healed of something; a client's associate, incidentally, is going on Oprah for that.

My friends who have overcome worse hardships may never be heard from.

There's no pathology in turning down uninspiring queries. Many sound fraudulent. Let's get "obnoxious:" many were just too dumb to stay out of trouble. People that dumb may think they deserve a book contract and TV accolades, but their peers don't buy books anyhow.

Anonymous said...

I tend to agree with you on the memoir thing. Given my family history, which never fails to get goggle eyes whenever I tell people about it, I could write a doozy. Except not. I'm weird, and the way I handled things doesn't exactly translate. I don't want to bore myself or anyone else with all the chin up, face forward, go! crap that goes into memoirs.

There's only been a few memoirs that I've enjoyed. Desert Flower by Waris Dirie would be one. Her story is very common in the world that she came from, but extraordinary in the Western world, and it was enlightening.

I'd approach all those memoirs with the same cynicism that you do, so don't hesitate to say your opinion.

Anonymous said...

When "30% of our submissions" are medical memoirs, that's called Over-Saturation.

Or Bandwagon Effect.

And "memoirs". Bad memoirs are usually Earth-Shaking Important to the wannabe writing "My Memoirs" and completely worthless to everyone else on Earth. It's like the drooling fanboy who glomps onto you at a con and Tells You About My Great Masterpiece. Except Memoir Fanboys are more open about it: "ME! ME! ME! ME! ME! ME! WHY AREN'T YOU INTERESTED? IT'S ABOUT MEEEEEE!"

Anonymous said...

Everyone needs to know their limits, including you. You know about literary submissions, so write about that. You obviously don't know the first thing about mental health, so don't lecture on it. Manic depression is an old diagnostic term that is no longer in use- it is now called bipolar disorder and has been for some time. They are one and the same. There is no "upward trend" in this diagnosis; mood disorders are the most common disorders out there. Stick to what you know.

Anonymous said...

I am a first time reader with a current case of Crohn's and a past case of mental illness: anorexia nervosa, which landed me in the hospital and near-death twice (and yes, it was unrelated to Crohn's, which came much later).

The very nature of disease is that it's unpredictable and it acts UPON you. OK, you can take action on it, deciding to beat it or whatnot, but in its boiled-down version, you are a passive protagonist in your disease. You HAVE it. You did not seek it; it is not a goal.

That's why my fiction has nothing to do with anorexia or Crohn's disease. By their very nature I find my past and present disease to be disjointed, uncontrolled. I don't want to stuff them into a story. I want to make up a story that has nothing to do with tube feeding and swallowing fifteen pills a day and seeing cellulite that isn't there.

As always, tastes vary. Some who are sick find great comfort in reading about others who share their malady.

For me, I side with The Rejector on this one. Go away, disease. I have books to write.