The Nov-oir: is this what it is coming to?

In his new book, POCKET KINGS, Ted Heller has coined the phrase nov-oir. A combination of novel and memoir, it defines a memoiristic novel, which is to say a fictional book written in the first person as if it were a memoir. POCKET KINGS is just such a nov-oir (or mem-vel). The protagonist, Franklin W. Dixon (if this name rings a bell, think HARDY BOYS), writes about his unsuccessful attempts to promote his third novel before turning to online poker under the handle, “Chip Zero.” The New York Times says Heller, the son of Joseph Heller who wrote CATCH 22, is hilarious and the book is at its best when he (or Dixon) rants about publication and all its attendant rituals. Just might be a good book for writers to read…

In the meantime, the book club is reading a nov-oir, THE PARIS WIFE, by Paula McLain. This fictional memoir of Hadley Richardson, Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, has been quite successful. So here we have not only a memoir that is really a novel but one by a fictional character purporting to be an historical personage. Tangled webs, these nov-oirs! Here, from McLain’s book is the first dance between Hadley and Ernest:

“A slow number starts, and without asking, he reaches for my waist and scoops me towards his body, which is even better up close. His chest is solid and so are his arms. I rest my hands on them lightly as he backs me around the room, past Kenley, cranking the Victrola with glee, past Kate, giving us a long, curious look. I close my eyes and lean into Ernest, smelling bourbon and soap, tobacco and damp cotton – and everything about this moment is so sharp and lovely, I do something completely out of character and just let myself have it.”

By all accounts, McLain has done her research well and some, if not most, of the appeal of this book is the history it recounts. Isn’t that what we like about straight up memoirs too? But here, we have it without having to take the narrator very seriously because, after all, her voice is fictional. She’s not real.

With the market for memoirs in sharp decline, the nov-oir is a curious development. Does it simply piggy back on the memoir craze or present an alternative in which the reader does not have the inconvenience and sometimes, discomfort of having to deal with a real narrator or in most cases real facts? Will more nov-oirs be making appearances on the market? These are questions we will ask the book club when it meets this week. And we would love to hear what you think.