If I offered you a glass of red wine and you accepted, you’d expect red wine. If it was red wine vinegar and I acknowledged that I knew that, you’d likely feel betrayed.
I could try to defend myself by saying that both are made from the same kind of grapes and that the vinegar came from the wine, but you’d likely lose respect for me and do a good sniff test of every glass of red wine handed to you after that.
Red wine is wine. Red wine vinegar is vinegar.
Neither is better or worse than the other. Each have their own process of creation, occupy different aisles and shelves in the market, have different packaging, and buyers have different uses for and expectations of each.
When I work with memoirists, I ask a lot of questions. If I pick up on even a whiff of fiction (embellishment, dramatization, substantive differences between experience and retelling), we have a discussion about genre, responsibility to the reader, and respect for the work and fellow writers.
The phrase “alternate facts” may play with some people, but if you can rub two brain cells together and make a spark, I think you’ll agree that facts are verifiable and stand up to scrutiny. The facts of a memoir must stand up to scrutiny: real places, real people, real experiences.
Not every detail in a memoir will be verifiable by outside sources. Many things happen behind closed doors or out of earshot of others, but the principal actors know the truth. Of course, writing truth won’t stop some people from making legal claims against the author.
To protect themselves, some memoirists change names, locations, and details of events to obscure the identities of the principal players and in some cases the innocent. This is the slippery slope of memoir. It begs the question: At what point does a story slip from the world of nonfiction to that of fiction?
It’s tempting to think that as the author, you decide. The reality is that the court of public opinion—your peers and readers—decide.
Why isn’t the author’s label for their work the thing that matters most?
For one thing (and arguably not the most important thing), it’s about marketing and word of mouth.
Take Jill Abramson and her recently released book Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts.
Look at the Amazon reviews, 54% of which (as of 4/2/2019) are 1-stars. This one is representative of the collective criticism: “Shameful: This level of plagiarism, without warning, or apologies to those that have already bought the book, is unacceptable. The author’s blasé demeanor toward her transgressions is an embarrassment to her legacy and the publisher.” (John C. Overington)
But can Mr. Overington’s criticism be verified? Yes. And even if her admitted “mistakes” and slack instructions to or management of her fact-checker(s) turn out not to be as egregious as the headlines make it appear (see below), the damage is done.
We must never forget that our consumers (and often critics) have far more power over the market than we do. When we claim to be purveyors of truth, we must do so with the utmost integrity. When we do not, we will be called out. And the financial and reputational costs will be high.
Some might argue that this is a bad example because Abramson’s book is not a memoir. While it is a fact that her book is not a memoir, both fall under nonfiction.
For an example from the memoir shelf, let’s look at James Frey whose memoir A Million Little Pieces has been called a “literary forgery.” (1, 2)
His lies were exposed in a the smoking gun articled that opens with the line “Oprah Winfrey’s been had.” (3)
I’ve had more than one memoirist say that one of their goals is to be interviewed by Oprah. To be sure, an endorsement by Oprah and being listed on her book club reading list is huge, but Ms. Winfrey doesn’t take kindly to misrepresentation. After helping Frey sell millions of copies, she called him to the couch for a public comeuppance. (4)
As a professional writer and editor and avid reader of memoirs, I’m of the mind that memoir is nonfiction, and fiction is fiction. I want and expect wine to be wine and vinegar to be vinegar and to enjoy each for what they are. I want to trust the authors whose books I buy and whose wallets I fatten. I want to trust and be trusted.
When I discover that what was presented to me as one thing is another, I am confused.
When I learn that an author knowingly misrepresented their work, I feel disrespected and betrayed.
When faced with what some call “artistic choices,” ask yourself why you feel the need to deviate from what you know to be the truth.
If you are changing some of the names to protect the innocent, say so upfront. Cheryl Strayed did just that in her memoir, Wild. She was clear about who and why. She earned my trust and respect before I read the first word of her story.
If you feel the need to change the facts to “spice things up,” your material isn’t strong enough or your writing skills developed enough to write a memoir (one of the most challenging things to write). If that’s the case, why not use your experiences as the basis for a novel, a work of fiction? Why cling to the memoir label?
Understanding genre conventions and the market are the responsibility of the author. It’s a shame that some authors out of will or willful ignorance choose to misrepresent what they’re offering because what should be sweet now often leaves a bitter taste in the mouths of the people who accept what is handled them.
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Some of Our Favorite Literary Hoaxes (take special note of James Frey)
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr
CI Communication Strategies