There’s a lot of yapping going on in the publishing world right now about yet another “memoir” that really – isn’t. (See: Frey, James – A MILLION LITTLE PIECES and MY FRIEND LEONARD.)
This time the lies are more egregious; the author not only made up most of the facts of the story but also appropriated another ethnicity. (Read all about it here.)
So of course, now, everyone’s flappin’ their yap about who’s responsible – the author, the agent, the editor, the publisher – for fact checking these memoirs, and what the limits are for fudging certain details, and how much “truth” is really required in this genre. Since books have been published, nonfiction, particularly memoir, has always had its fair share of “names and dates have been changed to protect the innocent” rearranging of the facts, and it’s never really been limited to that. Any editor will tell you that you still have to tell a good story, even when you’re writing a memoir, and will work to shape that out of the bare facts, which usually means something gets left out or – embellished. Just a little.
And any memoirist will tell you that the book is, after all, the truth as it is filtered and remembered from his point of view. Others who were involved will tell it differently. There are always two sides to every story.
But the current upheaval in this genre – there was also, just last week, the revelation that a memoir about surviving the Holocaust was written by someone who didn’t (and who wasn’t even Jewish) – smacks of something more than just being one person’s version of the truth. And while I do think that ultimately the author is the one responsible for packaging fiction as a memoir, I also feel that a good share of the blame has to go to readers, and publishers – but only for their reaction to said readers.
The truth is, fiction is a tough sell and it gets tougher with every year. People, it seems, don’t like to read stories that aren’t “true.” Nonfiction books outsell novels at a huge rate, the occasional Harry Potter or WATER FOR ELEPHANTS excepted. Any agent or editor will tell you how hard it is to sell fiction these days, particularly more literary fiction.
And look at television – look at reality TV, and how people are now famous for just being themselves, rather than for bringing any kind of talent to the table, for creating something artistic and wonderful. Our culture is hungry for “real” stories that are different or quirky or moving or hilarious – things that used to be satisfied by fiction. For some reason, though, we want to believe that our neighbors can be just as interesting as characters that are made up, wholly, by someone as creative as an author. Yet, of course, none of these reality TV type people are as interesting as they’re depicted, either; they embellish (or lie) and they’re edited in a way that makes them something that they’re not – makes them interesting.
And our culture swallows it – devours it. On TV, and on the bookshelf. While lovely fiction goes unread. Simply because – well, I don’t really know why. I can’t figure it out, myself. I only know it’s true.
So when an author comes to them with a good story, and maybe the author lets it slip out that it’s based on something they witnessed or experienced, the pressure is on to get the author to write it as a memoir. It’s much easier to sell the author as the story, rather than just the story. (And yes, I know this first hand, having spent the last three years masquerading as some sort of super mom, complete with costume, because I thought, and my publisher thought, it would help sell my books. I’m not blaming anybody; I went along with it because I know the tough realities of this business. And I, of course, wanted people to read my stories. But that doesn’t mean that I’m not now completely relieved that I can stop pretending that I simply adore babies and am only concerned with matters domestic.)
And so, of course, the author – who wants to get the book published, no matter what – is pushed to turn it into a memoir.
Little wonder, then, that some of these memoirs are going to be called out for being what they really are – fiction.
This isn’t going to end anytime soon. At least, not as long as our culture remains as voyeuristic as it right now. Not as long as we continue to turn our backs on fiction and art, lovely stories of imagination and beauty that are inspiring, moving in their own right.
We simply don’t value the creative mind anymore. We want to turn on our TV and watch “real” people living their “real” lives (in front of a camera crew, with microphones hanging over their heads, resulting in footage that will then be edited and condensed and shaped into whatever the director wants it to look like).
We want to, on our rare foray into an actual bookstore, pick up a book that says, “a true story” and look at the picture of the author on the back cover and feel like we know him, and we’ll learn something from him, because it’s easier that way. Easier than having to suspend belief or immerse ourselves in a world, in words, where we have to – gasp! – use our imagination.
So even with the recent flap, the death of the memoir isn’t going to happen any time soon.
The death of imagination, though – well, that’s another story. A true story.
(Since I feel I’m on a mission to get people reading fiction these days, I want to remind you to click on over to my new, fictional, serialization of The Adventures of Saffron Sally. If you want to save yourself some trouble, subscribe to the RSS feed on the site so you can be notified whenever I update.)