tMichaelB is the web site for Tom Bengtson, who writes about business, religion, family and politics.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Truth in memoirs

The question of truth always comes up when people talk about memoirs, and more people are talking about them since James Frey admitted recently that he made up much of the material in his best selling book, “A Million Little Pieces.” When people consider the issue of truth in literature, they sometimes begin considering the intent of the writer or the writer’s state of mind. But I think you have to start with the reader, not the writer. What does the reader expect?

A reader brings different expectations to different kinds of work. I bring one set of expectations to a novel and another set of expectations to a memoir and another set of expectations to a biography. A good writer understands, respects and satisfies the expectations of his readers.

Most readers expect a memoir to be what it is, that is, a true story told from memory. A memoir should be true according to the author’s memory. Readers understand the capabilities and limitations of memory. We understand that people remember powerful experiences from their youth, but readers also understand that no one can remember word-for-word dialog from 30 years ago. That doesn’t mean such dialog shouldn’t appear in a memoir; it just means that when it does, the reader understands that the writer has reconstructed it as best he can, based on the situation and the rest of the story.

A memoirist has to try to tell the truth, even if the truth isn’t completely clear. There are other forms of literature that don’t make this requirement. There are literary genres called "creative non-fiction" and "creative autobiography" that let a writer say anything without any regard for the truth. But that isn’t true for a memoir.

Those of us who have written memoirs and have tried to honor the truth are somewhat tainted by writers who use the memoir moniker to produce utter fantasy. A reader’s trust is a very valuable thing and when someone comes along and abuses it, the reader is likely to be a little skeptical in the face of any writer from that point on. How terribly sad.

In the case of Frey, his book apparently originally was submitted as a novel, but then published as a memoir. Publisher Doubleday thought it would do well if it marketed the book as a memoir, obviously leveraging the readers’ expectations for a memoir. This complete disrespect for the lines of genre really makes a writer cringe. In the long run, this kind of deception will only hurt publishers and writers. It makes it impossible for readers to know what they are reading. No matter what the quality of a work is, readers at least have to know what the writer is trying to do. They have to be able to trust that the book is an honest representation of the writer’s effort.

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