The Problem With the Follow-up Memoir

Elizabeth Gilbert is the embodiment of the phrase "new BFF." She gives you a hug the first time she meets you. She has a warm smile, booming laugh, and sparkly eyes that telegraph candor and empathy. Her effortlessly approachable persona, translated to the page, propelled her 2006 memoir, Eat, Pray, Love, into what she describes as a "megajumbo international bestseller." Hollywood and Oprah came calling; readers embarked on Eat, Pray, Love pilgrimages to places mentioned in the book. In more than 30 languages, Gilbert made herself a whole lot of new Best Friends Forever.

With the publication of Committed, those friendships are about to be tested. In some ways, her new book comes from a similar place as Eat, Pray, Love. In both, Gilbert travels around the world, first to come to terms with a devastating divorce, next to come to terms with the prospect of marrying again. But in a larger sense, everything is different. Eat, Pray, Love was written by a fairly anonymous everywoman readers could imagine trading places with. Committed is by a bestselling author who will soon be portrayed by Julia Roberts on the big screen. With the book, Gilbert confronts the dilemma faced by any first-time memoirist whose success is due to a relatable on-page persona. What happens when she becomes a bestselling author? What does she write next?

A novelist, one presumes, can make up more stories. A memoirist, who may have mined the first 30-odd years of life for her debut, must suddenly unearth similarly engaging material—or wait another 30 years for a follow-up. Memoirs, traditionally, have been the province of the notable and the old. (John Quincy Adams wrote his expressly for posthumous publication.) But in the last decade or so, young, nonfamous writers have stormed the genre, writing memoirs that launch their careers instead of capping them. (While Gilbert was an accomplished novelist and short-story writer before Eat, Pray, Love, most readers assume it was her first book.) "The biggest challenge is, you had a really good, resonant story to tell, why should you expect there to be another one so quickly?" says Ben Yagoda, author of Memoir: A History. "It seems there might be a half-life effect. With Frank McCourt, each successive book had a fraction of the sales and artistic impact as the earlier books."

Yet the serial memoirs keep coming, as publishers continue to gamble on lightning striking twice. It rarely does, especially because the follow-up is often rushed into publication to capitalize on the afterglow of the first success.

Pressure to replicate a first memoir's success comes not just from profit-minded publishers but from readers wanting more of the same. "I couldn't help but feel a bodily sense of what millions of readers feel like and look like," Gilbert says. "I had a sense of obligation." To try to please them, she wrote a version of Committed in a breezy voice similar to the one that narrates Eat, Pray, Love. "It sounded like I was trying to imitate a younger version of myself," she says. So she started again from the beginning, and wound up writing a book that she doubts will be as successful. "If anything, I'm afraid it will be too academic, or that people will miss the carefree voice of Eat, Pray, Love," she says.

Too often, follow-up memoirs can feel less meaty than meta—the first memoir's success becomes the very subject that drives the engine of the second. In Cleaving, the follow-up to the bestselling Julie and Julia, author Julie Powell writes about being recognized on the street by a reader who assumes the man she's with is her "saintly" husband, Eric, who makes frequent appearances in the first book. In fact the man is "D," an old acquaintance she's having an affair with due in part to the stress of the unexpected fame of Julie and Julia. Powell's affair with D forms much of Cleaving's plot, which putatively concerns her attempts to train as a butcher.

Like Eat, Pray, Love, the appeal of Julie and Julia lay chiefly in the writer's funny, self-deprecating tone, and Cleaving will disappoint readers expecting more of the plucky persona and domestic bliss that informed the first book. Whether adultery and headcheese are as appealing subject matters as Julia Child and butter remain to be seen, but the real question is whether Powell has written herself into a corner. Will her third offering be about the effect on her marriage of having written a memoir about the effect on her marriage of having written a memoir? At that point the snake will have swallowed its tail so far even the most sympathetic reader will find it hard not to gag.

Committed retains plenty of Gilbert's comic ruefulness and wide-eyed wonder, so it's unlikely readers will feel as betrayed as she fears. Still, it's probably wise that for her next book she's planning a novel. The writers with the greatest longevity are those who understand that the story of their life makes fascinating material—once. There are exceptions, such as David Sedaris, but he has always been more a humorous storyteller than a memoirist—rather than telling the same story again and again, you get the sense he uses incidents in his life as raw material for his inexhaustible imagination. Mary Karr, whose Lit retells incidents from her previous two memoirs, The Liars' Club and Cherry, is concerned with the act of memory itself, and the way the passage of time affects our interpretation of the past.

Jeannette Walls, who had a huge success with her memoir,The Glass Castle, followed it with a recollection of her grandmother's life—Half Broke Horses—that she calls a "true-life novel," not a memoir. "A number of people were urging me to write a follow-up to The Glass Castle about the New York years," says Walls, whose book stayed on The New York Times bestseller lists for 100 weeks. "But, frankly, I'm not that interesting." What a refreshing sentiment. Now if she could only teach that kind of humility to a few of her comrades in first-memoir superstardom.

The Problem With the Follow-up Memoir | Culture