Monday, January 31, 2005

Untold stories

One thought that occurred to me over the weekend, remembering Friday's post, is that the vanity publishers (to use a convenient shorthand term) do have one useful function. They allow the publication of personal memoirs which would otherwise be lost.

Let's face it, most people's lives are not very interesting. I did once think about writing a memoir of my own early life -- but only for about fifteen seconds. That was how long it took me to realise that no one would read such a book; not even my own children.

But that's because I have lived a comparatively dull and uneventful life; thank goodness. Suppose, however, that I had served at a high level in the civil service, or seen military service in the second world war. In that case I might have something to say which was not only interesting in itself, but which would be valuable to future historians.

The problem with history is that it's quite difficult to keep track of what is happening even while it's going on. Two hundred years ago, communications were slow and in many cases almost non-existent. Go back further and they were worse. I seem to remember reading that when Marco Polo wrote a letter home, he had to wait seven years for a reply. Nowadays, of course, we have instant communication. But who shot Kennedy? Are you sure? We have information overkill.

Future historians, looking back, are going to have one hell of a time figuring out what was really important and what was not. And so fifty years from now, an old man who writes about his experiences in the Bush White House or the Blair Downing Street is going to have something really valuable to tell us.

Most memoirs, unless they are full of really startling revelations, are simply not going to get published by the mainstream firms. I am quite certain of that, because a few years ago I was asked by a local man, a retired ambassador, to help him to get his memoirs published. It was damned hard work, but we eventually achieved publication through a small academic firm. And this is where we come back to the vanity publishers.

Elderly men and women who feel that they would like to leave a record of their experiences can now do so in a way which is capable, in theory, of remaining in print for ever. If their memoirs appear in digital format as well as book form, they can be lodged on one of the super-libraries that are now being planned for online access, and historians, both professional and amateur, can use them as a resource.

Personally I would never discourage a person who is approaching the end of their life from writing their life story if they so wish. For a relatively small amount of money they can get it printed in a perfectly acceptable format. They would be foolish to hope that it's ever going to sell many copies; but it may well be something of which they can be justifiably proud.

The sad thing is -- and I have personal knowledge of such a case -- that an elderly person who has a really interesting story to tell may die before they ever get around to putting it on paper. So the moral with memoirs, as with much else, is: don't leave it too late.


Mark said...

Even when they ARE interesting and unusual it is difficult to convince editors, whose lives aren't interesting, that yours indeed is. I recommend that one try, but this is typical vanity press fare. I know because I did it twice. It was free then though but the result is the same: Anonymity.

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