The Art of Modern Memory

From conscientious reader Dave C. ((very) minor editorial changes by the Biblioklept):

“The NY Times posted an article about an author who was outed as a fraud for writing a memoir about her life as a half-Native American, half-white gangbanger from South Central Los Angeles who escaped to the University of Oregon when she was really just an activist who at one point worked with gangs and created the characters in her memoir based on real people she had met in her real/fake life.The Times actually reviewed the book just last week and praised it.

I’ve just been pissed ever since that James Frey controversy about the idea that a supposed memoir has to be true. Does the fact that she made up portions of this book make her accomplishment any less significant? Isn’t a moving work of fiction a greater accomplishment than a moving autobiography? Are people really so concerned with whether someone actually did something that they are willing to ignore a touching, well-written narrative?

That James Frey novel, what I’ve read of it, was a tad overcooked, but about 10 people told me I had to read it because it was sooooo good. After Oprah (who made a gazillion dollars promoting his work) sold him down the river, he became a literary pariah.

Is the phrase “based on a true story” important in the appreciation of a story at all?”

I wrote a blog a few weeks ago about a few run-ins I had at an AP workshop, specifically related to teaching the canon. Anyway, that aside, during that workshop, this question came up. The mediator/instructor had the room show, by hands, their opinion on the issue. It was roughly a 70-30 split, with the majority favoring “authenticity” in their memoirs. I was, of course, in the minority.

Like Dave, I was steamed over the James Frey thing, not because I cared about the book–it looked like trash, frankly–but because he became a strange acid test for what America now thinks it needs from a memoir.

If we start from the assumption that genres impose a functional structure that inheres within the reading of a book, we’ve already made a strange, silly, and ultimately illusory set of distinctions to guide our reading. All one has to do is look at the travel literature of the sixteenth century or a science text book from the 1920s to see how quickly “validity” melts under context.

But even if we grant that genre has a meaningful or necessary purpose, and we work from this assumption, I think it’s a huge mistake to believe that “memoir” is the same as “nonfiction.” There are several simple reasons for this.

For one, to tell an effective and affecting story requires a manipulation of events–editing, hyperbole, recoloring, touch-ups, and so on. Events in life don’t necessarily unfold in a “readable” way. And I think that many, if not most readers go into a memoir understanding that the tale they read may be compressed or somehow aestheticized.

But I think a more fundamental reason that memoir shouldn’t be held to the strictest ideals of verity follows from the simple fact that memory is in no way perfect, absolute, or unchanging. We cannot perfectly record our memories, nor do they stay stable to us. Memories are always volatile, swirling; we forge our identity in every moment by reinterpreting and reimagining our past.

Any memoirist must literally reimagine their memories in order to write, and if they choose not to reimagine, but to instead imagine (invent and create) memories, what does it say about our expectations and needs as readers to judge their writing based solely on adherence to structural genre?

In the preface to Dave Eggers’s What is the What, Valentino Achak Deng foregrounds these problems. He says that the book–his “autobiography,” written by Dave Eggers (and hence not his autobiography)–must be considered a novel, as he was very, very young when many of the events recorded in the book happened. Similarly, Eggers’s own memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, repeatedly references its own flights of fiction, acknowledges its own need to invent a new imagined version of memories that never happened in order to better explain what really did happen. The Autobiography of Malcolm X was written by Alex Haley; The Interesting Narrative of Olaudah Equiano is rife with distortions, inaccuracies and completely fabricated events; in crafting A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man–which may or may not be a memoir (although it is certainly a book…)–James Joyce wholly lifted entire passages of contemporary religious tracts.

James Weldon Johnson’s novel, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, illustrates how easily notions of genre–just like notions of race and stable identity–can be deconstructed. Johnson anonymously published the “autobiography” in 1912, and it was received as the true life story of an extraordinary “Negro” who shockingly was able to “pass” as a white man, to the extent that he (gasp!) married a white woman and became a major property owner. The book initiated a minor racial panic, causing some critics to insist that it must be fake because no black man could effectively “pass” as the unnamed narrator claimed to do. JWJ’s deconstruction of race and identity could not have worked in the same way had he presented it within the limits of a “true” memoir. It took fiction (masquerading as fact) to reveal a more profound reality.

A good writer makes stuff up and writes it down in a way that makes us want to read it and not put it down and keep reading it until we’ve read it all and want to read it again. If finding out the circumstances of the writing of the book do not match a set of expectations we had going into reading the book, we need to re-evaluate those expectations.

8 thoughts on “The Art of Modern Memory”

  1. My favorite Robert Evans quote, paraphrased: “There are three versions of every story: yours, mine and the truth. And none of them are wrong.”

    I think your point about genre influencing our reading is an important one to take note of. It also seems to have the most weight when we talk about memoirs and non-fiction. No one gets upset when a work of fiction is peppered with actual events. The mantra, after all, in fiction classes is “write what you know.”

    Do you think that fiction like David Foster Wallace’s — wherein a real person such as Alex Trebec is written into a short story as a side character — will ever become mainstream or canonized, even? A juxtaposition like this is sense-confounding, to say the least. And yet, for more adventurous readers who can read outside genre, this kind of literary event is often the most fulfilling.


  2. Another promising author bites the dust and for what? I wonder what the motives of these whistleblowin’ crabs is anyway. I mean, why is the truth so important in mass-market publishing? These people aren’t writing textbooks or definitive historical biographies.

    I wonder if something as simple as “Inspired by true events” and a new classification for these almost-memoirs would solve this “problem” of authors taking liberties with their past.

    By the way, what a joke this whole shit is. I find it hard to believe that any memoir is entirely — or even mostly — factual. Verifiable, perhaps, but not necessarily “true”…


  3. Well, War and Peace (now, due to a nod from Oprah and a new translation, on the bestseller list again) is full of “real” people as side characters and “real” events…and it’s a novel. So, to a certain extent, I think the canon can accept this. Still, DFW does it in a far more “sense-confounding” way, as you say, than I imagine happens in the Tolstoy (I admit I haven’t read it).
    On a similar tip, Chris Bachelder’s novel U.S.! takes on Upton Sinclair as one of its main characters; the novel also often employs reviews, song lyrics, lists, etc. in lieu of direct narration. I loved the book.


  4. i agree with you all, but perhaps a way to avoid these issues and struggles is to market these types of novels as fiction based in/on real life events rather than specifically using the word “memoir” which is what obviously what puts the Oprah’s of the world off. sure, in a perfect world, people would leave “memoir” up to interpretation, but in the real world people constantly look for faults such as these in order to “expose” some sort of literary injustice. and thus by deeming it so, the question a reader is faced with is how, if at all, that detracts from it’s merit. if you can only see the black and white merit of it being a real life account than obviously it will severely damage your concept of the novel. if you see the novel (or other form of memoir based art) in terms of it’s artistic qualities then it should have little to no effect on your perception of it. therefore, the real problem is in the perception of the reader, which obviously can not be changed on a wholesale scale. without taking the detriment to the economic prospects and reputation of the artist into account, perhaps the people that will garner the most from a quality work of art are those least likely to be affected by such news.


  5. Your post brings up the interesting point of memory vs history. Now, I haven’t thought about things like this in a while, but this was always a topic I found fascinating. In the writing of any history, when is memory not not an enormous factor? People write down history, they write from their own memories, or the memories of others, or other’s memories of other’s memories. A bunch of people corroborating a certain version of events can help a history attain factual status, but it is still amazing how much people can adopt other people’s memories as their own.

    People criticize video and film as not being *true* history — they record events through the biased viewpoint of the camera person, and limit the scope of events to the camera lens. But this still seems to get closer to fact than many accepted written histories.

    I don’t know exactly where I’m going with this, but I agree with the Dave C, Ed, and all on this topic. And I think it can be taken beyond memoirs.


  6. The idea of an objective history is fantasy, part of an illusion that homogenizes and coalesces people. Right at the moment that we most believe that our ideas of history are factual, true, “real,” and objective–this is when we’re most susceptible to missing alternative perceptions. There is a great risk in marginalizing other viewpoints of historical events. That’s why I value mythology over history. Long live apocrypha!

    I would argue that while the camera might contain the possibility for a more visceral or immediate reaction to an event than a book does, its limitations are essentially the same as a book: it still suffers from a limited perspective (even a million, a billion cameras could not capture every view point); it is still subject to editing and other impositions, etc.

    The 9/11 attacks on the towers were filmed; for most this is historic evidence of the reality of a terrorist attack. However, there’s a large, vocal minority who use the footage as proof that the gov’t “did” 9/11.

    Not really related to the rest of this comment, but has anyone seen Kurosawa’s Rashomon? This movie does a fantastic job illustrating the limit of first-person perspective.


  7. I read Rashomon after watching Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai and it really made me appreciate the way a situation can be interpreted in completely different ways by the people in that situation. It really is amazing how our personalities, past experiences, and frame of mind totally shape our reality and can cause us to see a happening as something totally different from the people standing right next to us. The Rodney King Beating and “Don’t Tase Me, Bro” incidents are a perfect example, IMO.

    In the case of the latest shamed author I think if she was “there” at least, her chances of being “caught” for completely fabricating the experiences in the book would have been much less. She would probably have been able to weather this storm. Unfortunately for her she can’t claim cognitive dissonance or “misremembering” the events in her faux-memoir.


  8. If I could piggy-back onto what Damon just said, the issue for me with Frey and other similar writers (ie Rigoberta Manchu) (sorry if that’s not spelled right, as I don’t feel like looking up the real spelling) is not that they mis-remember the facts or that they’re susceptible to the same memory lapses as anyone else. The issue with these writers is that they deliberately portray as fact something that they know is not a fact. It’s the intention behind the action that grates on me.

    Many readers take these memoirs as some sort of indication of the reality of the worlds they depict, and they do that because the writers present themelves in good faith. It’s the difference between making an honest mistake and committing fraud. It’s not that we have an unrealistic notion of memory, but that we take writers who explicitly guarantee their authenticity at their word. When Eggers admits that he’s bending reality to suit his narrative, that’s fine. But that’s not what this was. While we may not all agree on historical events, this is no excuse for patently lying about such events. If something absolutely didn’t happen, it’s misleading to make money by claiming that it did.

    What’s truly sad about this is that the stories that Seltzer wrote about (at least if we take her word that they actually did happen to other people that she knew) would have made fascinating reading on their own, much in the style of Theodore Dalrymple’s writings on the British clients he worked with through his country’s socialized medical services. The stories could still have been told forcefully without the deliberate fraud.

    By the way, my favorite memoir/autobiography is Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s. Best last sentence ever.


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