No one likes being lied to. Especially by a memoirist. If even one event in a memoir is made up, it makes the rest of the story suspect. In autobiographical fiction, though, it’s okay if the author “lies” to us, because we go into the reading experience expecting, well, fiction. Not real events.
An article from the January 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker by Daniel Mendelsohn discusses the topic of falsified memoirs (ala James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces). Mendelsohn brings up the truth vs. Truth argument that Tim O’Brien addresses in depth in The Things They Carried. (Read my entry on The Things They Carried here.) He concludes that even though a falsified memoir might convey a Truth, the lie is not justified—the author could have written a novel to convey the same Truth and wouldn’t have had to betray her reader.
I agree with him. When writing nonfiction, we need to tell the truth, while at the same time expressing some Truth. In fiction, we are under no such constraints.
Mendelsohn briefly discusses the blurring between reality and fiction toward the end of the article, and brings up Stephen Glass and Jayson Blair as two journalistic examples. That part of the article ties nicely into my musings on the difference between reality and fiction, and also brings up some interesting problems.
Specifically, how far is too far? James Frey obviously crosses the line, but what about “reconstructed” dialogue in a memoir? Or what about those scenes that you can’t quite remember exactly, but you think it might have gone something like this? I think answering those questions could take up another post entirely, so I’ll save my thoughts on that for another time.
While blurring the line between reality and truth doesn’t necessarily make a novel or other work metafictional, I think that most metafiction speaks to a sort of reality-within-a-reality, usually for some specific purpose (like to decry war as Vonnegut does in Slaughterhouse-Five). In other words, it creates a layered reality to convey some Truth. In that way at least, the two topics are closely related and create an interesting dialogue.
Falsified memoirs have no place in that dialogue. Although Frey had to add something into his introduction about how parts of the book never happened, it’s still looked at like a memoir, where The Things They Carried never was and is still not, despite its autobiographical content.
In my mind, Frey missed a wonderful opportunity. Had he written autobiographical fiction instead of a “memoir,” he could have used to opportunity to say what he wanted and needed to say about addiction in a much more powerful—and genuine—manner. Same goes for any falsified memoir.
Now, I’m not saying all memoirists should suddenly switch to writing O’Brien-style autobiographical fiction, but I am saying that anyone who wants to play around with reality vs. Truth should read O’Brien, because as of yet I’ve found no more masterfully executed discussions on the topic.
Although Mendelsohn argues that the word “reality” is being degraded by things like reality TV, I think books like O’Brien’s strengthen it. By blurring the line between reality and truth, I think it makes us think about reality in terms of what actually happened and what didn’t—we separate events from how we feel about them, and this allows us to better analyze both the events and feelings, and hopefully grow as people.
Of course, that doesn’t mean memoirists should lie about what happened in their lives.
A version of this post originally appeared on one of my previous, no-longer-operational blogs, The Narrative in the Blog, on February 25, 2010.