Ben Crair, assistant editor of The Daily Beast, recently mused about the state of memoirs in his article “Who’s Afraid of Fake Memoirists?” Some may speculate that this age of materialism, of the quest for fame through any means, has contributed to a rash of literary exaggerations and embellishments-gone-too-far. But Crair speculates, “Maybe now, with new tools at our disposal, we are simply detecting a condition that has long gone underreported. Maybe the symptom of our age is not the fake memoirists themselves, but the catching of fake memoirists.”
That leads us to a sticky ball of wax rolling down the hill. Yeah, so what about those older memoirs? Are they totally true in the authors’ eyes, and does it matter to us now? Should we go back and try to fact-check them? Is Winston Churchill’s six-volume Memoirs of the Second World War totally truthful or is it a political ploy and public relations stunt? I would argue that, yes, we would be annoyed to find fakery in Confessions of an English Opium Dealer (Thomas deQuincey, 1821). Anyone, from long ago or recently, who embellished their memoir to the point of it becoming a novel deserves to be outed. Their book will still have value, as James Frey still has fans, but readers deserve a warning notice. A memoir that attempts to perceive history to one’s benefit is another story (and often someone else produces a book or essay to refute it – In Command of History: Churchill Fighting and Writing the Second World War, by Charles Jeanfreau).
Many modern memoirists are unafraid to throw every sordid detail of their lives into the public eye in an attempt at fame. (Did Madonna start this trend with her do-anything-for-attention, shove-the-envelope actions?) In Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser compares older memoirs such as Angela’s Ashes (1996) with the new memoirs, “The national appetite for true confession has loosed a torrent of memoirs that are little more than therapy” or “self-indulgence and reprisal.” He goes on to state that a good memoir elevates the past to a larger truth. Amen.
So what’s the line between a novel and a memoir? A good novel strives to become a memoir, and vice versa – both must make the reader feel part of a reality – but, a memoir is a true reality, a true remembering – right or wrong (does that make sense!?). Ben Crair thinks that nowadays, in light of the many fake memoirs out, “If anything, you could argue that the fact-checkers are doing too good a job. There seems to be some risk that, in attempting to hold memoirs to journalistic standards of factuality, the watchdogs miss the forest for the trees, fixating on minor details in books whose general pictures are correct.” And he has a point there.
So, the little details of a memoir should not have to be fact-checked by an investigator, it is the bigger picture that is important. Of course fake memoirs should be rooted out, but let’s not go too far overboard and toss all the babies out with the bathwater. Authors do need to be honest enough to call it like it is – a novel based on facts may not be as impressive, but it is not any less a story than the real thing, and is sometimes better than the real thing.
PS: Don’t you think even Disney movies need a disclaimer? “Pocahontas is based on a true story, but fictionalized for entertainment purposes.” I swear people will believe anything, even stories about a girl raised by wolves.