My longtime friend Ms. Pope commented recently, “What do you think of the recent memoirs that were found to be fabricated?” I had been thinking and reading columns about the bogus memoirs, and her question spurred on me to write more. My brain was percolating last night as I listened to On Point discuss the topic as I drove home alone. On Point is an NPR show recorded in Boston; they were hoaxed on Friday by the most recent false memoirist (Margaret B. Jones, aka Margaret Seltzer), and they focused Wednesday’s show on the repercussions.
As a book reviewer, I’m on the fringes of the publishing world, but I see the sheer quantity of memoirs and novels published; the information in Wednesday’s On Point helped me understand how a bogus memoir could make its way into print, as most publishers don’t do in-depth fact checks, they trust the author. Copy-editing is performed to ensure accuracy enough to avoid libel, but one would think the publisher could double check that the author’s basic identity and story is accurate as well. I wish Margaret Seltzer/Jones had written her “memoir” as fiction, as it sounds like an engrossing book that would fit beside the wonderful novels of fictionalized reality, True to the Game I & II. But because she lied and cheated, we won’t have the opportunity to read the book as a novel. As I was looking into falsified memoirs, nothing has explained my burning question: why would someone write fiction and publish it as if it was a factual memoir?
I am disappointed and appalled that an author would do this, and it boggles my mind that anyone would try to sell a false memoir as fact. I can completely understand why someone would want to be published, and that if the memoir market is hot, authors aim for publication in the hot market. However, I can’t understand why someone would risk everything by lying so profoundly about their lives, with the hubris of believing they wouldn’t get caught, when in truth it was relatively easy to disprove their story.
I realize and accept that as a genre, memoir is subject to interpretation, as everyone remembers a situation a bit differently. There have been many memoirs questioned by siblings of the author, as everyone experiences the family differently. Fiction author Jane Porter’s perspective is similar to mine:
Years ago in grad school I took an Autobiography course as part of my MA in Writing program. We read fifteen different memoirs and autobiographies. During the course I was struck by the subjective nature of memory. As Sarah McCarthy taught me with her memoir, you can have four siblings experience a shared event, and yet you’ll end up with four different versions of the event. We might be shoulder to shoulder with our brother or sister, but we will still internalize, and personalize, the event, and experience, differently.
That was a light bulb moment for me. My absolute truth would never be my brothers or sister’s truth. I could write a tell-all story about my father’s death, and it still wouldn’t be the tell-all. Life is far too subjective, and I realized, surprisingly malleable.
Jane’s words explain why I could never write a memoir myself, and emphasizes the blurring between fictionalization and memoir. but within that malleability and subjectivity there is still truth – there are always parts of a story that are the same to everyone. Moving beyond subjective perceptions is the line in the sand that changes a book from memoir to fiction, and no “hot market” justifies labeling fiction as memoir.
Now I am feeling very defensive about the veracity of the memoirs I have read and reviewed, nervous about the memoirs in my “to read” stack, and I worry that sales of memoirs will decrease because people are wary of fakes. I don’t want these amazing authors whose memoirs I’ve reviewed to suffer because of the actions of a few lying writers. Additionally, I am angry on behalf of the people who read and reviewed the recently discredited memoirs, only to find out that they were reading a fictionalized story. When you read a memoir, there’s a different feel to the story – an empathy and a connection with the author, the reader has different expectations than when reading fiction.
I wish I made up the events in my life – I would have saved myself from the thousands of dollars in student loan debt which I used to fund my drug/alcohol addiction, I would have saved years and another pile of money in therapy bills, counseling sessions and visits to my doctor to see if I need to be on various meds. I would have probably been in a stable relationship by now. I might even have children. I might be more secure in my identity. I might even pick up the phone and call my mother about the bad day, week, year, I’m having and she would purr into the phone and I’d come home and be swallowed up in her arms, lost in the thicket of her hair. If only.
Felicia, is the author of the recently published, fabulous, real memoir The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here, which I enjoyed & reviewed. Felicia, who also works in the publishing industry, writes further about her feelings about the effects of false memoirs on writers:
I’m downright frustrated. I’m concerned that writers rationalize lying to their readers simply to capitalize on a society’s need for access and their own desire for success, and it’s disconcerting that publishers are eager to flood the marketplace without a basic gut-check (does this seem real to me on the page? does the writer’s story check out? should we get legal involved? or do I not care because I have numbers to make, books to catalog, a sales force waiting for the next Eat, Pray, Love). That a few proverbial rotten apples taint an otherwise viable genre filled with talented writers who want to celebrate overcoming a traumatic experience and craft that experience into art.
Felicia’s thoughts lead me into another tidbit from Ms. Pope’s comment; she doesn’t understand “why they don’t just call it fiction instead of a memoir”. I share this confusion, especially since The Novel is thought to be the genre to have published. Everyone aspires to have a Novel published, for writers it’s the equivalent of actors wanting to direct. Of the many books I have read and reviewed recently, three incredible memoirs (The Sky Isn’t Visible from Here, Persian Girls, and The Middle Place) were as engaging as novels, and three novels (Jackfish, The Vanishing Village, The Last Cowgirl, and Did I Expect Angels?) had the feel of a memoir. These novels with a memoir-feel all include some facts, but the authors have fictionalized the experiences enough to give the author the opportunity to tweak the story. The writers who have published books with facts twisted into fiction can change those facts to best suit the plot and the characters, which gives the author the opportunity to give readers the experiences and ending the author desires, rather than being reliant on fact. There are many memoirs I’ve read where I’ve wished I could tweak experiences so the “character” was happier, but if the tweaking happened, it would no longer be a memoir.
A lot of authors base their novels in their real life experiences, and that often leads to books that “speak” to readers. My newest novel-crush is on Jane Porter, whose books have all drawn on parts of her reality. She has fictionalized parts of her life, turning her small-town childhood into The Frog Prince, her relationship with Hawaii and a younger man into Flirting with Forty, and her life as a single mom into Odd Mom Out. This mix of fact and fiction has meant more publicity options, and a very believable novel with multi-faceted characters. In fact, Jane has said, “in my novels I write about the things in real life I wish I could talk about.” It’s clearly working for her, she has millions of books in print!
I asked Jane, “You’ve chosen to use parts of your real life in novels. How much of real life are you comfortable sharing, and why did you decide to write a novel rather than a memoir?” She had a wonderful response:
I started keeping a journal in jr high and after thirty plus years of writing, I’m comfortable with writing in “I” form, but the I is more universal than I ever expected. Of course none of my books are really my whole story, just bits, but they are valuable jumping off points. For example, I’ve discovered that if I have been shattered by divorce, thousands of other women have. If I am afraid of aging and mortality, I know I’m not alone. If I worry about my children and fear depression in my pre-teen, then there must be other mothers who can’t sleep at night because they too worry about their child’s well being.
So real life goes into my fiction, launches the books, launches the themes but still gives me freedom and creative control and expression in a way a memoir wouldn’t. In my mind a memoir would require more of a passive, subjective reporting–albeit artfully done–and I refuse to passively report love and loss, pain and heartbreak without resolution. I want change. I want dark moments and turning points but I must have conclusion, and resolution. I want hopeful endings. I want the whole Great Gatsby green light shining at the end of the dock.
Maybe someday when I’m 100 I could be happy with a retelling of my life, but at this point, playing with life, shaping life, demanding creative solutions to life’s hurts and headaches are far more satisfying than just reporting them.
I’m right there with Jane – I like the happy endings that are more prevalent in fiction than in memoirs. I just don’t understand why authors who falsify memoirs choose to sell their stories as memoirs rather than novels, and publish them as such. I completely understand why memoirists choose to write the facts in memoirs, and why novelists choose to twist facts into fiction, but I am still boggled by the people who write bogus memoirs and blur those lines in the sand. Even if there are more publishing opportunities for memoirs, there are still plenty of opportunities for a well-written novel! (Just think of all the soon-to-be-released novels in my “to read” pile…)
People who write fake memoirs cheat everyone. They cheat themselves out of a real writing and publishing experience with their choice to write fiction as if it were non-fiction; they cheat their readers out of a real memoir; they cheat their publishers, and cheat the readers. First, they cheat the readers out of a real memoir when they read the fiction presented as memoir, and they also cheat potential readers out of a good novel if these “memoirs” had been published as a novel. What are the repercussions on non-fiction and memoir authors when there’s another case of a falsified memoir? Felicia writes, “The fake memoirists make my job that much more difficult because we now live in a climate of guilty until proven innocent.”
Now for my readers, what do you think? Are you still interested in reading memoirs after learning of the falsified memoirs? What is your opinion on all this?
[...] Rachel has some astute thoughts on the subject. Tag Me:These icons link to social bookmarking sites where readers can share and discover new web [...]
[...] I am disappointed and appalled that an author would do this, and it boggles my mind that anyone would try to sell a false memoir as fact. I can completely understand why someone would want to be published, and that if the memoir market is hot, authors aim for publication in the hot market. However, I can’t understand why someone would risk everything by lying so profoundly about their lives, with the hubris of believing they wouldn’t get caught, when in truth it was relatively easy to disprove their story. Read more [...]
Hi. As an author who is having terrible trouble getting my memoir published, even though my story IS unique in so many ways, even though I am a two time Pushcart nominee and three chapters have been acclaimed and published, one winning a prize, one nominated for Pushcart, I am ANGRY that editors are so stupid that they publish fake memoirs yet tell me mine won’t sell. My stuff is easily checked. You can find out that I did live in a homeless shelter, that I did fight welfare, that I was the most unlikely person to do all this, that I was the token educated white person NOT on drugs in these situations. They can check that endless NYC companies did not hire me and gave illegal reasons. SO I am livid that these FAKES get published.
As to what brothers or sisters remember, I know that my brother “conveniently” doesn’t remember that my parents did not send me to college, but sent him. How is that possible; is he blind? No, he won’t admit it, because it ruins his world-view that HE is the tortured one.
Thanks for your cool site.
[...] in her romances, she seems to put more of her self in her books for 5-Spot. Jane was nice enough to chat with us about the lines between fact and fiction in books today. Read the rest of the [...]