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“The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact…”

January 3, 2009
Ah, James Frey, poster boy for fakery

Ah, James Frey, poster boy for fakery

Exposing fake memoirists. It’s become a thing now, thanks to the sheer number of fake memoirists. However, we didn’t always see things this way.

The post title comes from the Preface to Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719).  In light of all the fake memoirs that seem to be making the rounds at the moment, here’s some of what the rest of this cheeky preface to a fake memoir (the first novel written in English?) says:

The editor believes the thing to be a just history of fact; neither is there any appearance of fiction in it: and however thinks, because all such things are dispatched, that the improvement of it, as well to the diversion as to the instruction of the reader, will be the same; and as such, he thinks, without farther compliment to the world, he does them a great service in the publication.

(from my 2002 Penguin copy; my italics, just because the phrase amuses me here)

So, basically: this is to edumacate you and perhaps you will enjoy it. It’s the thing and, in order to sell it to you, we’ll call it a true thing.

The preface, and numerous little asides throughout the book, emphasise the idea that this is a memoir! It’s a legit genre! [Yes, I know that link takes you to a blog where someone’s already done this sort of thing about 3 years ago, but bear with me, and I’ll get onto some fun stuff about Memoirs of a Geisha soon, promise…]

The main reason for this was to gain some credibility, novels not being seen as proper literature at the time, as they were all new-fangled and whatnot. As Tyler Simons puts it on the Watchpost blog:

([James] Frey did, allegedly shop AMLP unsuccessfully as a novel before calling it ‘memoir’.) Might it be that, like DeFoe who had to lie about Robinson Crusoe’s historicity to build up its highbrow status, Frei lied about the truth of his work to downplay his artistic pretensions?

It’s an interesting point, although perhaps too kind a one to make of our modern-day false-memoirists. They’re writing in a less innocent time, where the full swing of finding agents, shopping manuscripts to publishers and the marketing the thing to the right demographic are all very well-known.

Defoe was not alone among C18th writers in claiming a legitimising frame for his novel (although he was one of the first): see also Henry Fielding, Samuel Richardson and Laurence Sterne, among many others. Even in the infancy of novel as an accepted form, writers and publishers were thinking about the marketing. The “history” tag kinda helped then, as it does now – isn’t it more exciting to think that these crazy and awful things really happened?! Doesn’t that just make your jaw slacken a little bit more?!

So, in the spirit of entertaining the gawkers, C18th writers wove a fun little play around their piece of possibly-true-but-these-events-didn’t-really-happen writing:

Most new novels and romances continued to be published anonymously. Authors hid and waited for the best moment appear in person. The anonymous publication created its usual suspense – what if Richardson’s Pamela was not invented but a real person? The title page of Pamela or Virtue Rewarded left, however, the market Robinson Crusoe had addressed. The “narrative” which wanted to be “founded in truth and nature” was at the same moment, so the title, deliberately designed to move young readers towards better precepts of virtue. Fiction had become an accepted medium authors could be expected to use to improve morals.

(Wikipedia, again, I know, but how much did you enjoy that para? I sure did! My fave bit’s in bold)

C18th JT LeRoy right there!

Has anything really changed? Why write a memoir about the Holocaust (even a lovely one full of hope! But still, Herman, still), drugs’n’gangs, drugs’n’alkeehol, a Muslim honour killing, or even horrific childhood abuse, except to inform, to caution, to celebrate redemption, and – just a little – to satisfy a little voyeuristic tendency in the reader? Clearly, since the dawn of the novel, of all writing, really, writers and publishers have known this, and how to do this. And, particularly in the case of the false Holocaust stories, it’s a clever move to attach yourself to a historical event and become part of its truth. Unfortunately, it’s also a hateful move, toying with the worst experiences of others:

Anyone who makes art about the death of millions must first ask what the work adds to the sum of human understanding, and whether it does not perhaps, in some unforeseen way, diminish or – God forbid – normalise the victims’ fate. If there is no ready answer to both questions, the work can be dismissed as exploitation.

(Norman Lebrecht, writing in the London Evening Standard on the recently-released film The Reader)

One sad side-effect of all this fakery – which, let’s face it, is feeding a hungry market out there, it rilly sells – is that when the terrible stuff is true, you’re still not really sure what to believe when the red flag of “hmmmm, really?” is raised. Not until the abusive mother gets the courts involved.

As one of Britiain’s first black female judges, barrister Constance Briscoe was taking a huge risk when she wrote about her disgustingly abusive childhood in Ugly (2006). Her mother, Carmen Briscoe-Mitchell, sued her for libel late last year. Briscoe won. I have to say, when I heard about the case, I thought, oh no, not another one. And this one was worse, because the writer would have so much to lose, given her professional standing. Nevertheless, the courts found in the writer’s favour. It’s not a completely good thing that she won – I’d almost rather the story wasn’t true, so that it hadn’t happened to her, but it did. She was honest. It’s a victory of sorts, if getting her story out there, and believed, has indeed been cathartic for her. I would hope that it has been.

Honestly, who really reads these misery memoirs? Not me. If there is redemption involved – usually there is – I like the idea of it. The plot of the Herman Rosenblat memoir had become a little Tumblr meme – lots of people had been blogging and reblogging it from Cajun Boy[*]. I loved the sweet little tale. I fell for it completely (unlike a good few perspicacious commenters on this very blog). Would I have gone out to buy it? Nope. I wanted to believe in the existence of the tale, but I didn’t need to actually read the whole thing, thanks (little knowing that there would never be a whole thing).

Of the books mentioned in this post, I’ve only really gone for the literary fiction ones: Crusoe is dull and preachy, I only read it for my degree; Pamela‘s quite salacious and fun; Shandy is fucking difficult but fantastic. It’s in a genre of its own, and I do love a bit of meta. Going more modern, I’m less Dave Pelzer, more Memoirs of a Geisha (here it comes!). All writing is misery writing, no? Happiness writes white, blah blah blah, all happy families, blah, etc. We’re all the same when we’re happy: unthinking (incidentally, it’s basically the same reason for why written sex scenes are invariably awful. It doesn’t really work when it’s all wordy, so it’s a bad fit with the medium).

Analysis only happens when something doesn’t work for us, as a way of finding out why. It also has to occur after the event – perhaps a long time – because it takes a while. So sadness is where we begin writing. It’s just that the better writer you are, the less it’s mere “pornography of personal pain.” And ‘better’ means whatever you want it to mean, really. It’s what the reader likes, and what status the reader has.

One of the greatest books ever ever ever (seriously, how many accolades has it won?), Midnight’s Children, is about the pain of an entire nation. It’s not a personal memoir, but it is about historical events, and seen largely through one man’s eyes. Then, there is A Fine Balance, also about C20th India, which uses the characters’ heartbreaking personal pain to explore the government’s abuses against its subjects from 1975-77. The authors haven’t, as far as we know, experienced the awful things that their characters have, but we believe that they have captured the spirit of what it was like to live in those times and those places. As they haven’t gone for some non-fiction tag, we let it go. Disbelief continues to be suspended; two good books are not hounded out of existence.

And so now to me and Memoirs of a Geisha. This is a story about being 15, naive and more in awe, rather than enraged, when I was duped by this whole fiction/memoir/non-fiction mashup. My mother bought it for me just after it had come out in paperback – 1998 I think. She got me Memoirs and The God of Small Things, both of which I still love to this day.

That Arthur Golden (what’s he been up to recently?) does a neat framing story. The trick is to keep it close to the truth (he did interview an elderly geisha), but to change names and the like. He didn’t do that too well – see the defamation case. In a pre-internet era, though, all I had was the book in front of me, and some newspaper reviews. And I believed it. Here are two very believable bits from the highly plausible “Translator’s Note”:

As a historian, I have always regarded memoirs as source material. A memoir provides a record not so much of the memoirist as of the memoirist’s world. It must differ from biography in that a memoirist can never achieve the perspective that a biographer possesses as a matter of course. Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us – so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.

[…]

When I asked Sayuri’s permission to use a tape recorder, I intended it only as a safeguard against any possible errors of transcription on the part of her secretary. Since her death last year, however, I have wondered if I had another motive as well – namely, to preserve her voice, which had a quality of expressiveness I have rarely encountered. Customarily she spoke with a soft tone, as one might expect of a woman who has made a career of entertaining men. But when she wished to bring a scene to life before me, her voice could make me think there were six or eight people in the room. Sometimes still, I play her tapes during the evenings in my study and find it very difficult to believe she is no longer alive.

(from my 1998 Vintage copy; the italicised bits are, as ever, my faves)

And so to the confession at the end: “ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Although the character of Sayuri and her story are completely invented, the historical facts of a geisha’s day-to-day life in the 1930s and 40s are not.”

Whaaaaaaaat?!!

Yet, beyond the shock, I was fine with that because, you know what, it was a great book and he wrote it well, and I admired it. So I wasn’t pissed off. However, I am a very trusting reader. I quite like the wool being pulled over my eyes. If a text stands up to reading first, and truth second, I’ll have it. Still, that isn’t a good enough reason to shoehorn wannabe novelists into the “memoir” box just to sell more. That’s what this is, surely?

Why is the media so angry with all the fake memoirists (okay, well I guess their whole thing is rooting out the truth, or so it should be)? Why do authors feel the need to fake it – isn’t a good framing device enough anymore? Finally, my goodness, what of fact-checkers, publishing industry? What of them??

So, in conclusion, messing about with the boundaries of your genre, without admitting to it, is career suicide. Consider yourself warned, “memoirists.” Or else, go for “based on a true story” in big bold letters. It’s so vague, no one can get you for that. Done and done!

For future reference: a fake memoir ————————————————–>>

—————————————————————————————————————————————————

[*] Cajun Boy got the Herman Rosenblat story from CNN – and the page has now disappeared. Seems like they don’t wanna talk about it.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS: Kudos to commenter ELlen Janes for getting it right all the way back on 4th December.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 8, 2009 4:29 am

    Yes, “contract with the reader” is a great way of putting it. To build rapport with the reader and then destroy it in such away will lead to these kinds of reactions. Words have so much power over us.

    I wouldn’t really want the responsibility of writing something completely “true” at length, whether memoir or journalism. Length being book-length, I guess. Give me fiction writing every time!

    Thankfully, fact won in Constance Briscoe’s case referred to above, where her abusive mother attempted to sue her. I’ll google the Lives of Others case tomorrow…

    Like

  2. eleiva permalink
    January 8, 2009 4:18 am

    I haven’t read/seen The Reader and am in fact eagerly anticipating seeing it… In fact, there are several movies that came out recently dealing with the concept of personal testimony, perception and truth (Doubt is one of them, for example). But in the case of The Reader, I am not surprised a memoir would put people on trail, if it is considered a testimony of events of the past.

    My guess is that we categorize fictional and “real” stories in different boxes and that is part of the contract with the reader the author strikes. That’s why we are angry when we find out a supposedly real story is not factual. Yet, it is telling that the main actor’s wife from The Lives of Others sued him for claiming she informed on him while they were living in East Germany, even though her activities in this respect were in fact documented. Isn’t it ironic how fact and fiction intersect, and fact does not always win?

    To me, The Lives of Others and Rosenblatt’s memoir are the two ends of the same continuum. On one side, a tiny yet significant fictional element in a true story undermines its appreciation. On the other hand, the totally improbable main point in an invented story about historic events goes unnoticed. It all depends on the “contract with the reader” to begin with…

    Like

  3. January 8, 2009 1:03 am

    Hi eleiva, thanks for the comment! I like your post too, the bit about The Lives of Others is especially interesting. I loved the movie, but it’s clearly a dramatisation – would Ulrich Muhe’s character have had the autonomy to act as he did? I don’t think so, but the fictionalisation makes for a compelling movie. I think, as the audience, we don’t really mind that. It didn’t pretend to be a completely true account.

    Have you seen The Reader? Another film relating to the Holocaust, in which a memoir is so powerful as to put 6 people on trial…

    Like

  4. eleiva permalink
    January 7, 2009 10:50 pm

    Well… it appears truth (not even plausibility or probability) has its own role in a narrative. We assign a greater moral and emotional value to a true story. Aristotle must be spinning in his figurative grave 🙂

    http://eleiva.wordpress.com/2009/01/07/how-important-is-truth-in-a-story/

    Glad I discovered your blog!

    Like

  5. January 6, 2009 11:57 pm

    Nice comment patty! So interesting about your father being interviewed and you finding it later – how strange that must have been, suddenly finding his voice again.

    Documenting works properly is certainly important – so why aren’t publishers doing it? Memoirists’ tales should be fact-checked to death when they’re going to be marketed under the label of “true story.” Otherwise, it can have devastating consequences for people mentioned in the book – imagine if Constance Briscoe’s case had gone the other way.

    Writing from the truth and involving real people is always problematic, and all fiction is affected by it. What about that whole thing with one Kate Gompert suing David Foster Wallace for using her name in Infinite Jest?

    Writers are always exploiting something or someone to a certain extent: their pasts, their relationships with their mothers, that bad break-up. So “truth” in writing is more of a spectrum than an absolute. Nevertheless, something either did happen or it didn’t, and when you’re marketing a book whose very purpose hinges on that detail, well, you’ve got to do some checking.

    [I do think it’s quite funny how het up the media get about this stuff, not least because they’ve really got to keep up the fact-checking themselves. I also think it’s a bit of a frustrated writer thing…]

    Like

  6. pattypv permalink
    January 4, 2009 6:29 am

    There is the whole issue of fiction/memoir, great books written well, and pointing fingers if one does not clearly “base on true stories” – drawing a timeline from “Pamela” to “AMLP.”

    And yet documenting works properly is an important thing. I had the shock of reading a book about a huge tornado that ripped through Kansas City when I was too young to remember it. The author interviewed a number of people, including my father. Before the book was published, he died. He did not tell anyone he had been interviewed for this book. So after his death, I came across the book, and reading the passages where he was quoted about how he and my family were affected by this event, I could quite clearly hear the words as if they were spoken in my father’s voice. It was, in a word, weird. (No one in my family was harmed in the storm, but my parents had sold their grocery store to a man who was killed because he did not flee the store for safety when the tornado hit. It was an F5 Storm that chewed a path of 71 miles here in the Midwest in 1957 – think Wizard of Oz meets the Book of Revlations.) I did track down the author and found out how she came to interview my father, and that was one interesting conversation. The book is “Caught in The Storm” by Carolyn Brewer. It makes the movie “Twister” seem like child’s play.

    Then, a friend of mine published a book this year, which won a local literary award. When you learn that a friend has published, of course you get the book, and I started to read it out of the obligation of friendship. Much to my surprise – I loved the book. My friend is quite the stylish woman in her 60’s, and she is whom I wish to become when I grow up. I felt I should read her book out of duty, and did not expect to be quite taken with it – and as a result I gave her book to many friends this holiday season. It is “Five Island Diaries” by Marth McCarty. It is fiction, based on her life experience. I’ve talked to her about many things in the book, and I suppose if she told me it was total fabrication I would be upset. But in her book I hear her voice, much as I could hear my father’s in the book about the tornado, and I know there is truth in what she writes. And that must be one difficult thing to accomplish.

    So – the writing of books is not a casual thing, as it can affect the lives of those who know the author, or the people quoted in the book. Lord only knows how “Pamela” was first received. But I believe that what authors are always advised to do – “write what you know, and write the truth” – is good advice, and perhaps nearly impossible to do. If you had to write about something that you know to be true, could you do it from the point of view of absolute truth? How can you not let your own emotions influence what you write?

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