Another day, another literary scandal. First (Well maybe not first. See this listl) there was Helen Darville’s faked history behind her Miles Franklin-winning novel The Hand that Signed the Paper; then there was James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces; novelist JT LeRoy, who finally admitted to being Laura Albert; Nasdijj, the Navajo memoirist who turned out to be porn author Timothy Patrick Barrus; Misha Defonseca, who turned out to be Monique De Wael, author of pretend memoir Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years; and now Margaret "Peggy" Seltzer, who has admitted that Margaret Jones is a pseudonym and that her memoir Love and Consequences was also faked.
So what’s with all these faked memoirs and identities? Does the fault lie with the publishers for not fact checking? Some would have it so. Does it lie with the authors for duping their publishers, their agents, and of course the angry public who feel cheated of a real life story when all they got was fiction?
What’s so funny ‘bout fiction anyway? A good story is a good story, whether it really happened or whether it was pulled together by someone who imagined it. Frey’s book for example may not be damn good history, but it surely it is still the same damn good fiction that Oprah cried over. Perhaps even the bigger truths of the work — those characters and situations that we find verisimilitude in — remain the same.
Writing a novel is no easier than writing a memoir – it takes an awful lot of work, talent, research, and inner searching to produce a full-length book that takes the reader somewhere that he or she can recognise as real regardless of genre. The books have to be truthful in one way or another or they won’t touch the reader.
Perhaps novelists are faking ‘memoirs’ rather than writing ‘novels’ because of the public’s insatiable hunger for ‘what really happened’ and the flow on effect this has with publishers, who are much more willing to take on memoirs than new fiction. My own novel Sleep Before Evening, is entirely fiction, but you can’t write a novel without putting an awful lot of yourself into it. There are plenty of moments that really happened, and the novel is full of the truth, because that is the whole point of fiction – to show something real and meaningful in a narrative construct. We don’t live in a linear, narrative type of universe.
Our lives are bombarded with a range of sensory perceptions, memories, diffuse narrative threads and anticipations. Both memoirist and novelist take these things and use art to create something structurally accessible that others can understand, but there’s always construct, selection, re-invention. There’s always artfulness. Even relating a recent memory involves that kind of construction. I’m not condoning the literary hoax, nor am I suggesting that these hoaxes don’t matter. Of course it’s wrong to go on the record as being someone you aren’t – particularly when you are dealing with sensitive issues or race, experience or influence where you might steer someone wrong because of your pretence, or create inappropriate propaganda because of your bias.