A few months ago, Prince Harry’s memoir Spare became the fastest-selling non-fiction book of all time. Half a million people bought a copy in the first week – a number surpassed only by Harry Potter and Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol – as royal fans and detractors fell over themselves to read about the rifts between Harry and William, the spats between Meghan and Kate, the Queen, and, of course, stories of sex and drugs.
If we measure success by numbers alone, the book was a triumph. But what we don’t know is how Harry feels in the aftermath of publication – though, given our exposure to his emotional world, we could take a guess.
Memoir is a strange genre: on the surface, it offers a service to the writer as well as the reader. It can be viewed as a catharsis. It is validating to have your experiences recognised by others, and therapeutic to write them all down. But publishing a memoir opens you up to criticism – not only of your writing and your work, but of you and your life. This has always been the case – but social media, where everyone has the opportunity to espouse an opinion, exacerbates the exposing effects.
A few weeks after Spare was published, the literary agent Rachel Mills wrote an article for the Bookseller about this problem. “Increasingly I wonder if our industry is doing anywhere near enough to safeguard the authors who are brave enough to tell their own stories,” she wrote. In other words, how can we protect personal writers while still connecting to them?
Mills tells me that since she started working in publishing in the early 2000s, memoir – and appetite for memoir – has itself undergone substantial change. In that decade, “misery memoir was absolutely huge, and celebrity memoir filled the supermarkets”, she explains. The market was driven by print media, where the new phenomenon of reality TV stars filled tabloid pages. Mills was working for a major publisher at the time: “We could do a serial deal with the Daily Mail or the Sunday Times for half a million pounds.”
Now, interest in memoir extends beyond the experiences of Piers Morgan, Robbie Williams and Katie Price – although, as both Harry and Obama’s sales figures show, celebrity tell-alls are still very much of interest. “The types of book that get commissioned are often people who already have a platform,” says Mills – but now that extends to those who have followings on social media, which opens the floor beyond established celebrities and media types to those who are simply “normal people” with a story to tell.
The stories that get the most traction are inevitably those that include a trauma or life-altering experience: we read about other people’s lives in order to gain insights into our own, or to widen our perspectives.
In the wake of Mills’s article, the journalist Terri White wrote for the Guardian about her own experience of memoir writing, explaining that when the press release for her book landed in the Bookseller in 2019, she was in her office, where none of her colleagues had any idea of the “poverty, self-harm, physical abuse, sexual abuse, anxiety, depression, dissociation, suicidal ideation, alcohol and drug abuse” that the book described. She felt, she wrote, “overwhelmingly, unexpectedly vulnerable”. It’s not just your life – it’s the worst parts of your life, which you’ve already had to hash over in the writing process.
This sense of vulnerability can be even greater for memoir writers without a media background – of whom there are many more than there were 20 years ago. “If you are a seasoned broadcaster you’ve probably learnt to protect your private self and your public self – they’ve got anecdotes they say that they just roll off,” says Mills. “If you’re not from that world at all and you’re writing a first memoir, and you go into every interview and every podcast and it’s very personal, that’s going to take more of a toll.” Again, she explains, writers have to rehash traumatic experiences to an extent they might not be prepared for.
In her memoir, Rebecca Humphries, actor and author of the memoir Why Did You Stay?, addresses the impact of a toxic relationship. The partner in question was the comedian Seann Walsh: the couple were involved in a cheating scandal during Walsh’s stint on Strictly Come Dancing in 2018, when Walsh was photographed kissing his dancing partner. After this period in the limelight, Humphries had already braced herself for exposure when the book was published in 2022. Over the phone, she tells me that after the experience she did a couple of years of therapy.
“I’ve done a lot of work on self-protection,” she says. “I’ve worked in the entertainment industry for long enough to understand that any story that’s out there, whether it’s true or not, is going to receive unwelcome feedback. So it was a decision that I made to steer clear as much as I could of places like Twitter, and of social media. I was really careful about what I looked at during that time, about who I spoke to. And that’s not burying my head in the sand – it’s an act of self care.”
Memoir can also be a vehicle of empowerment for writers. Humphries found that, having had her story told by somebody else in a highly exposing way, writing her book was a way to reclaim her own version of events (a particularly pertinent experience for a book about being gaslighted). The book does discuss her relationship with Walsh (though it does not name him), but it is also about finding self-worth and the reasons so many women find themselves drawn to similar dynamics: it serves an informative purpose as well.
It was only when Humphries found her own voice that she felt able to communicate her story to others. “I was under a great deal of public scrutiny for a narrative that was not of my choosing. I was really dragged into a story, and I felt myself very early on being cast as a character that was convenient and palatable for people to be able to digest,” she says. When she released a statement on Twitter in the wake of the Strictly scandal, she began to feel “I was in charge of my experiences, my story, my opinion on it, and with my own voice”.
Harry and Meghan are frequently criticised for claiming to want to escape the limelight and immediately diving back into it. Similarly, memoir writers could be asked: if you don’t want exposure, why write about it in the first place? When I put that question to Mills, she is resolute.
“I think the thing is that people just don’t know what it means – how could Harry possibly have known what the experience would be like, when he’s not done it before?” she explains. “For people less in the public eye, who have a good idea for their memoir and interest from a publisher, there’s no way they can know what the writing process and the PR process is going to be like. It’s so hard for them to understand, no matter how much you try to talk about it.”
The primary tension in memoir publishing is that the support systems surrounding writers often comprise their agents and publishers – parties with a clear financial incentive. “As much as I think many people in publishing are very empathetic, there is a conflict of interest in what we’re all trying to do,” says Mills. “The role of the industry is financial, and it’s artistic. You want it to be the best book it can be, and you want it to make as much money as possible.”
This means that publishers naturally push for exposure, which may feel uncomfortable for the writer. But it also means that writers going through a difficult time become prime memoir-writing talent. Humphries tells me she was approached by multiple publishers when she released her Twitter statement about Walsh’s cheating, but that, still being in the experience, she “wasn’t ready to own it”.
“It would have been really easy for me to get swept up in a commercial whirlwind when I’m flavour of the month,” she explains. “But actually I wasn’t in complete control of myself and my experience at that time.” Again, it’s easy to see how writers with less industry experience and self-knowledge than Humphries could have taken a different path.
In order to make sure writers’ lives aren’t treated solely as commodities and that authors are not left out on their own, the industry should “ask the experts what kind of support authors should have, particularly ones who are going to be revisiting highly traumatic phases”, says Mills. Humphries emphasises that pastoral care should be recognised as the most important thing, even in a professional environment. Although social media may be just as – if not more – exposing than tabloid culture, it has also given us tools to understand power dynamics and given more people a voice.
“People are always going to connect – we’re all having this human experience,” says Humphries. “But if you’re going to write a memoir, just make sure you’re in charge of it.”