Popular memoir in neoliberal Australia

Author: Jacqui Dickin

  • Thesis download: available for open access on 17 Aug 2024.

Dickin, Jacqui, 2021 Popular memoir in neoliberal Australia, Flinders University, College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences

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The widespread popularity of memoir over the last three decades in Australia demonstrates the importance of life narrative to national identity. However, it also reveals the pervasiveness of various ideologies, including that of neoliberalism. Though memoir’s success and popularity has been welcomed by readers, writers and publishers, memoir has also been the subject of critical assessments that accuse the genre of inciting narcissism. This thesis seeks to examine the function of popular memoir, specifically within the contemporary Australian market, to analyse how popular memoir is integrated within the politics, culture and society in which it circulates.

This thesis traces the function of popular memoir during 2010-2017. This period is significant because its proximity to the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 provides a unique opportunity to investigate the relations between how popular memoir and neoliberal ideology respond to global crises. Although, this thesis tends to focus on neoliberal ideology as a cultural force, one that intervenes in the way people perceive ‘normalcy’ in response to the crisis through life narrative rather than a vehicle for markets, publishers or authors to respond to crisis. In practice, this thesis focuses on the relationship between memoir and neoliberal ideology as a force that polices, challenges and negotiates norms of being in the world. For example, as economist Peter Bloom argues, neoliberal ideology responded to the GFC by reinvesting its energies away from the now compromised ‘market’ and towards physical, psychological and spiritual wellness. Subsequently, popular memoirs during this period are overwhelming structured by redemption narratives, which focus on individual self-determination and overcoming trauma to achieve wealth, success and happiness. Significantly, the popular memoirs in my case studies are authored by influential and celebrity subjects. Controversial wellness warrior Belle Gibson’s Instagram account @healing_belle and her cookbook The Whole Pantry (2014); founder of the I Quit Sugar wellness franchise Sarah Wilson’s memoir First, We Make the Beast Beautiful (2017); Vietnamese-Australian comedian Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee (2010); lead singer of rock band Cold Chisel Jimmy Barnes’ Working Class Boy (2016); and well-loved actress and comedian Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning (2015).

In these case studies, I demonstrate how the popular memoir market traverses the spheres of ‘wellness’ and ‘celebrity’ and discuss how these spheres continually (re)produce particular kinds of subjects that are authentic and powerful. Both wellness and celebrity are grounded in neoliberal logics of personal responsibility, the individual and self-regulation that suggest the individual is always at fault regardless of their economic, cultural or political circumstance. These memoirs tell redemption narratives, in which the authors overcome trauma through personal willpower and become successful, popular subjects. I read this as a neoliberal structure in which the individual takes responsibility for their own trauma or disadvantage and is rewarded for successfully overcoming it by their own willpower. While this structure appears flawed, popular memoir is also site where these authors circulate simultaneously as authentic survivors of trauma who are also commercialised subjects: their experiences must also sell memoir and may serve to promote a career or public identity. Crucially, these authors are often framed by their popularity as good role models with relatable life narratives that readers should want to emulate. Typical of neoliberal ideology, deeper social, political, cultural and economic contexts are obscured in favour of the individual. As such, this thesis argues that popular memoir circulates within a social imaginary where ‘ordinary’ people also defeat trauma and become wealthy, successful and happy.

Keywords: memoir, popular, autobiography, neoliberal, celebrity, wellness, life narrative

Subject: Humanities thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2021
School: College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences
Supervisor: Dr Kylie Cardell