Magical Realism, Writing, Fiction, Politics, Haiku, Books

lunes, abril 18, 2011

The Memoir Genre Takes Another Beating

Last night, 60 Minutes ran a piece about inaccuracies in Greg Mortensen's book, Three Cups of Tea. Today, the New York Times reported on the controversy. The memoir genre is taking yet another beating.

What emerges is that those inspiring, charming stories people always tell when they are at a cocktail party or sitting around drinking beer, telling anecdotes and stories from the past, exaggerating, making stuff up, having a great time, making themselves bigger or smaller than they really are, those products of the raconteur's art, they don't work when they are written down and called "memoirs" and are alleged to be 100% factual. There's a big problem. A memoir is supposed to be 100% factual. And the genre absolutely depends on this. If you want to inflate or deflate a story, or make something up, or spin it around, your book should be in the fiction aisle. It shouldn't be called a memoir. This is not a radical proposition.

“It really is the responsibility of the author to write the truth,” said David Black, a literary agent. “If a publisher were to establish a fact-checking department the way a magazine fact checks, given the length of the works and the number of books they are dealing with, it would become very difficult to publish a lot of nonfiction.”

William Zinsser, who is the author of “Writing About Your Life: A Journey Into the Past,” said on Sunday that publishers have had a “slippery” standard for accuracy in memoirs.

“I don’t think they much care whether it’s true or not,” Mr. Zinsser said. “To me, the essence of memoir writing is absolute truth because I think everybody gains that way.”

One has to assume that the writer, in this case Greg Mortensen, knows whether what he is saying is completely accurate. There are, of course, people who can't pass this entry level threshold, but I don't think Mortensen is one of them. People who don't know the difference between truth and falsehood definitely should not quit their day jobs to become memoirists. The rest of us presumably know an inaccuracy (a lie, if you will) when we write it down. Supposedly we know it when we tell it, we know when we're being inaccurate.

There is, of course, nothing the matter with making up stories, creating simulacra, telling outrageous lies. I do it all the time in my stories. And so do my characters. They do that because like most humans they tell lies, to themselves, to others, to everyone. Anybody who can write, though, knows whether s/he is writing facts or fiction.

If it's fiction, it should be labeled fiction. That grand dame, memoir, shouldn't have to put up with another beating by somebody whose understanding of the rules is impaired.

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Blogger Diane said...

well said!

10:06 a.m.  

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