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.
But I am suggesting that the kind of reverence that the public places on “what really happened” — the obsession we seem to have with “reality TV” and gritty revelation talk shows — might be misplaced. James Frey was a successful author long before he faked his memoirs, but it was only the attention from Oprah and the ensuing scandal that made him a literary superstar, or super villain if you prefer – I’m not sure there’s that much difference from a sales point of view.
But should I really care whether James Frey really went to jail for 1 day or 10? Should I begin investigating because there’s a small discrepancy in the dates in Ismeal Beah’s latest memoir, A Long Way Gone? The key issue here is whether these are good books or not. If we buy them because they’re shocking, or amazing stories (“hey madge, you won’t believe what this kid got up to”) that don’t ring true, and are full of ridiculous rubbish we are happy to believe (“he swore in his memoir that aliens took him to Mars and I believed him”) then we might deserve to be lied to. If the memoir is beautifully written, and full of rich, vivid detail which touches something very real in the reader, then maybe it remains good fiction even if it isn’t good fact. The truth is about something deeper and more powerful than simply the bald facts.
In Jill Lepore’s excellent piece in this week’s New Yorker, “Just the Facts, Ma’am”, she makes this point wonderfully, exploring the relationship between historical writing and fiction, particularly as it manifested itself in the 18th century: “For Fielding, there are two kinds of historical writing: history based in fact (whose truth is founded in documentary evidence), and history based in fiction (whose truth is founded in human nature).” There are many different kinds of truth, but the memoir, real or faked, certainly doesn’t have a greater claim to it than fiction does.