The Murky Relationship Between Truth and Memoir
By Kathryn Lackey
A publisher asked me recently what genre of literature I wanted to publish within. When I replied nonfiction, he seemed genuinely curious to know whose life I found so exciting.
“Mine,” I said, “I’m writing about me!”
To which he openly groaned.
“Memoir” he said, smacking his mouth as if something unsavory had just landed on his tongue, “And what makes you think your life is so interesting?”
Which gave me pause. I found my life to be extremely interesting, and it seemed odd that he would so quickly assume that it wasn’t. But was it arrogant to assume I wasn’t boring? Or worse, was I simply just a narcissist, making the mistake that because I thought my story was appealing, others would too?
Writers have been fighting the narcissist label for years, but it seems memoir writers are particularly vulnerable to this accusation. In a Gawker article published last year, “Journalism is not Narcissism,” Hamilton Nolan claimed that these memoir type essays are nothing but “run of the mill voyeurism tinged with the desperation of attention addiction.” These people, myself among them, are so obsessed with their story that they don’t mind scraping through their lives with a shovel, dumping their problems onto a public audience, hoping it’s weird, or sad, or disgusting enough to make a few bucks. Nolan says of this confessional type strategy; don’t bother. Simply shove a naked picture of yourself into the pages and the mission will quickly be accomplished.
But this dismissal of writers who consider themselves their best subject may be too harsh a critique. Lena Dunham, writer, director, and producer of the popular HBO show, Girls, has been criticized for writing a show roughly based on the problems that she and her friends face. This inclination to write within one’s own experiences, isn’t necessarily a bad thing argues Richard Brody, a writer for The New Yorker. He says, “the most overused and misapplied word in movie criticism these days is ‘narcissism.’” This younger generation of filmmakers, in their twenties and early thirties, do not write about wars, the Depression, or other elements of life that perhaps have profound meaning. They avoid what they have not experienced, focusing their writing instead on what they “guiltily do.” As a successful third season of Girls comes to a close, it’s clear that through depicting the daily drama of regular life, profundity can be found in the seemingly mundane.
Unlike the memoir, however, the Girls series is based on truth and not exactly the truth itself. These episodes are a well-written, well-portrayed version of something like reality. Maybe the problem with memoirs today is that they are expected to be completely true, taking precedent over the art itself. This produces works that offer sensational tales but in terms of literary quality are, at best, poorly written. In the New Yorker article, “History of Memoirs, Daniel Mendelsohn says of this type of writing, it’s “a genre in which truth value is necessarily of greater importance than are aesthetic values.” He goes on the say if readers think “the anguish and suffering aren’t real, there’s nothing to redeem.” This takes a marked turn from novels, which offer universal truths, a far different concept from an author’s personal truth. With this expectation of precise portrayal, the focus of the book veers away from the art form of the writing itself.
But who is to blame for this shortcoming? Should the culpability be with the modern reader, who seems to prefer the story to be completely true, remarkably breathtaking, and with a happy ending to boot, rather than written well? We can see this reader desire for content over quality even outside the genre of memoir. The erotic Fifty Shades of Grey series by the British author, E.L. James serves as a great example of this. For those of us who pride ourselves in our evolved literature tastes, these books were so poorly written that they were simply unreadable. Despite this, the series sold over 100 million copies, offering the conclusion that sordid subject matter certainly takes precedent over literary quality.
How much responsibility should lie with the writer? A writer who endeavors to take on the memoir must diligently include all information necessary for the story to be absolutely accurate to avoid backlash against falsified elements. James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, certainly felt the impact of his story not checking out to be completely factual. But while every element wasn’t entirely true, he felt he had accurately represented his truth. “I am an Alcoholic and I am a drug Addict and I am a Criminal,” he says, and he felt that the book fairly represented this. As a piece of art, it was well constructed. But this memoir, among many, was ultimately to be shunned because the expectation of truth was not met.
Maybe, as Mendelsohn suggests in “History of Memoirs,” the blame lies with memory itself. Our version of truth is shaped by more then the recollection of the event itself. Other factors like our need for coherency or simply the desire to recount a good story affect the way we construct our tale. Who is telling the story also makes a considerable impact on how the story is told. We remember things differently. Consider the history books that shaped our grade school education. We believed these books to be accurate representations of the “facts” of our society’s creation. Now our perspective has evolved to an understanding that our history is simply the story told from the winner’s point of view. Stories like Christopher Columbus “discovering” the Americas exist in direct conflict with the story of the Native Americans, whose story would go more like, “when the white man came and took all our land.” The fact that our truths can conflict complicates the idea of memoir and the notion of truth.
The popularity of the memoir continues to expand regardless of the unsavory labels attached to the genre. But what should all this mean for the memoir writer? Responsibility may be part of the answer. The writer must be responsible enough to give their whole truth as best as they can, while simultaneously being as honest and respectful towards the art form of writing itself.
Despite the memoir’s limitations, I doubt there will come a time when our enthusiasm to hear personal stories will wane. Through these journeys, we all seem to be hoping, somewhere along the way we will be able to better understand our own.