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Memoir is the new Novel

By Dell Smith

I’m a fiction snob. I read mostly novels and stories; I’m drawn to the characters, the voices, and the endless points of view. If a novel’s protagonist is familiar, I draw a sympathetic comparison and nod in recognition. If the protagonist is unusual, reading the story is a chance to discover something new and see lives drawn from outside my experience but with universal emotions and attitudes.

As a fiction reader (and writer), I need to know: Why are so many writers telling their stories as memoir? Starting in the early ‘90s, memoirs became a very popular narrative form, mostly because they were starting to be written with the techniques of character-driven literary and genre fiction. Books like Girl, Interrupted, by Susanna Kaysen; The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls; Angela’s Ashes, by Frank McCourt; A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, by Dave Eggers; Running With Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs; The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr, and A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey, among many others have been bestsellers and award winners. The problems begin when these books are published as non-fiction. Frey admitted fabricating parts of his memoir. Burroughs was sued by the Turcotte family he lived with during the events of his story, and was forced to call his memoir simply a ‘book’.

Memoirs must be looked at through the spectrum of their origins. Namely the author’s memory. “Remembering by its very nature is a reconstructive process that often leads to distortion,” says Psychology Today researcher Nicole Dudukovic (1). “We piece together our memories from the fragments of life’s events that we’ve retained. We don’t have exact copies of events stored in our brains. Our memories of life experiences are influenced by our unique perspective during the experiences as well as at the time of remembering. The myriad of events that occur and the vast knowledge that we gain throughout our lives influence our memories of the past. If our autobiographical memories are always reconstructed and influenced by our current perspective, is writing an accurate memoir ever possible?”

Dave Eggers introduces his memoir with a disclaimer admitting his work leans toward the make believe: “This is a work of fiction, only that in many cases, the author could not remember the exact words said by certain people…and had to fill the gaps as best he could. Otherwise, all characters and incidents and dialogue are real.” He also says liberties were taken with chronology.

Jeannette Walls says in The Glass Castle, “The names and identifying details of some characters in this book have been changed.” I would add, “Making it a work of fiction.” Early, pre-Oprah copies of Frey’s Pieces claim neither fiction nor non-fiction. And didn’t he try to publish the book as fiction, but nobody was buying? Burroughs, in Running with Scissors, pretty much sums up the attitude and technique of most memoirs with, “The names and other identifying characteristics of the persons included in this memoir have been changed.” All these memoirs include lines of dialogue presented as if they were recorded or transcribed at the time, in situations that nobody including the author can claim to know. It’s too real not to be fiction.

So, okay, just because a memoir takes liberties, perhaps even falsifying entire episodes in a writer’s life, doesn’t mean it’s not a viable piece of literature. As I’ve stated, I’m an avid fiction reader. Which means I’ve read many more novels than memoirs. But I have read a few.

I thought Eggers’ A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius had a cumulative effect of heartfelt events, striking details, and momentum that made it an excellent read. Diablo Cody’s Candy Girl was an interesting if depressing chronicle of her year as a stripper, although I could never shake the feeling she only did it (or stuck with it) knowing she could get a book deal out of the experience. Dan Kennedy’s Rock On about his getting hired as a record company executive during its waning days was an amusing memoir, although it felt like it wound down just as it collected speed. But in general I’ve kept away from the heavier memoir fare of addiction (Million Little Pieces), growing up in a screwed up family (Running with Scissors), and growing up poor in a screwed up family (Angela’s Ashes, et al).

Researcher Nicole Dudukovic says, “If writing an accurate memoir isn’t feasible, we have the difficult task of determining which memoirs contain an acceptable number of inaccuracies and exaggerations and which we can call a hoax. Then we have to decide what to do with the hoaxes. I question whether a piece of literature that is labeled and marketed as non-fiction should entirely lose its value when its validity is called into question, particularly when the lines between fact and fiction are often murky.”

The reading public probably doesn’t care either way. In his review of the memoir Muck (2) by Craig Sherborne, Ted Weesner Jr. claims that “readers are probably less interested in getting the so-called facts about someone they do not know than they are in experiencing something artistic and whole.” So this exemplifies the popularity of the new memoir: based on a real life but creatively written. Weesner claims that Muck “is that uncommon memoir that could also fit the profile of an excellent literary novel.”

He sums up his reaction to Muck thusly: “In the end it’s difficult not to wonder if this isn’t a novel parading as a memoir. The patterns of experience are perhaps a hair too artful, the thematic resonances hit a little too provocatively and hard. The characters, one might say, are half-again too vivid. And yet, if you are reading for the facts, you have probably quit by the end of Page 1…Continue past (the first page) and you will exit the far end having learned and, more importantly, felt a lot more than mere facts.”

So it’s a novel. Wait, it’s a memoir. It’s both. Does it matter? Does the reader care? Maybe memoirs are generally not labeled as novels because a) non-fiction sells better than fiction, b) an attractive novelist’s author photo is relegated to the back cover/inside dust jacket when, c) an attractive memoirist’s author photo is pushed to the front cover as proof that it’s about a real person. In other words, is selling a memoir a publishing decision based on whether the marketing department thinks a title will sell better if labeled non-fiction? Is it the belief that a book based on real people/events will attract book buyers more quickly than just another literary novel about the same subject?

In his essay “Why is American Fiction in its Current Dismal State?”(3) Anis Shivani (who recently wrote about The 15 Most Overrated Contemporary American Writers for the Huffington Post) argues that the popularity of the memoir is harming fiction, especially the novel. “We live in a ‘culture of confession.’ Typically memoirs teem with self-revelation but not necessarily psychological insight.”

I’ll argue that you will find realism as much or more in fiction. The novelist and story writer must fully contruct the world she is writing about to convey that world to the reader and have the reader not throw the book across the room in disgust. Whether it’s a novel about a girl growing up in a family of alcoholics, a couple stuck in a doomed romance, or an alien living in Central Park, the writing must ring so true that readers forget they’re reading something that’s made up.

Where do memoirists stand? Certainly they don’t feel as though writing a memoir is selling out, or caving in, or that a memoir has any less narrative impact than a novel. Stephen Elliott, the author of the great and disturbing novel Happy Baby and of the memoir The Adderall Diaries wrote in his review of Nick Flynn’s memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City(4): “In a good memoir, the author is able to go deeper, be more open, more vulnerable. The reader is able to connect with the character exposed and learn from the character’s flaws, relating to the flaws in the reader’s own life. The worst memoirs make the mistake of thinking that the reader actually cares about them, but the best never fall into this trap.”

He goes on to say that “…in a memoir, the writer doesn’t have to worry about the reader connecting the author to the character, the author is the character, and this liberation can have fantastic consequences. But actually it doesn’t matter if a book is a memoir or not. Unless written by a historically relevant figure, the label is meaningless. The standards of literature are all that matter. This brilliant memoir would be no better or worse billed as fiction.”

Where does that leave the novel in relation to the memoir? Maybe, in the end, it doesn’t matter and is only a matter of taste. Novels are my bag, my literary feast. But that doesn’t mean I can’t read a memoir and get lost in its depth of character and clarity of story, just like my experience reading a great novel.

What do you think? Do you agree with Nicole Dudukovic that memoirs are based on dubious memories and so have lost their validity? Do you side with Anis Shivani that our culture of confession has left the memoir akin to navel gazing to no particular end? Or are you with Stephen Elliott, and agree that memoirs are capable of being great literature; a mantle long held other literary forms? Have you read a great memoir that puts the novels you’ve read to shame?

Resources

Are All Memoirs Fiction? By Nicole Dudukovic, published on psychologytoday.com on June 17, 2008

Book review of Muck, by Ted Weesner Jr. published on Boston.com on June 18, 2010

3 Why is American Fiction in its Current Dismal State? by Anis Shivani, published in Pleiades 27, No. 1.

Book review of Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, by Stephen Elliott, published on SFGate.com on September 19, 2004

Dell Smith is a fiction writer. He grew up on Cape Cod and left town to study filmmaking. He writes stories and novels, and works as a technical writer at a software company northwest of Boston. He has also worked as a videotape editor, cook, music video lackey, TelePrompTer operator, accounts receivable clerk, assistant film editor, caterer, roadie, flea market vendor, videotape duplicator, and wedding videographer. He has lived in Worcester, Bridgeport, Van Nuys, Billerica, Ithaca, Florham Park, Fairfield, and Simi Valley. He brings his life experience to bear in his fiction. His writing has appeared in Fiction, J. Journal, Lynx Eye Quarterly, and Grub Street’s 10th anniversary anthology Hacks. He is a regular contributor to The Review Review and maintains a blog, Unreliable Narrator at dellsmith.com, featuring essays on movies, writing, and the publishing biz, along with book reviews and author interviews. He is currently writing a novel.

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