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Not to drag James Frey back out of the depths of repressed memory, but I was reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s review in the New Yorker of Memoir: A History, by Ben Yagoda, and came across this wonderful little acorn:
This justification of a literary fraud on the ground that it is true to the writer’s interior world—a world that helps the author “cope” or “survive”—strikingly echoes the self-defense offered by Frey. “People cope with adversity in many different ways,” he wrote, adding that his mistake had been “writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience. . . . . I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.”
Such claims add up to a quite valid defense of a certain literary genre, but the genre in question isn’t memoir—it’s the novel.
That last part is what a lot of fiction writers already know–that in many cases you take liberally from your own life (or those of innocent loved ones) and make a better story of it. Like the proverbial fisherman, we might embellish our yarns with lots of flourishes and exagerrations and perhaps even catch a hyperbolic bass, so that we get closer to what it really felt like. Closer to the truth. One of our great nonfiction instructors, Shari Caudron, and I were e-mailing about it, and she referred to the core of Mendelsohn’s argument:
But the truth we seek from novels is different from the truth we seek from memoirs. Novels, you might say, represent “a truth” about life, whereas memoirs and nonfiction accounts represent “the truth” about specific things that have happened.
Could the difference between memoir and fiction really come down to the article before the word “truth”?
I’m not sure if there’s really such thing as “the” truth, but I do know that I most respect the memoirists and nonfictioneers who dedicate themselves to trying to reel it in. And I don’t think fiction writers get a pass when it comes to truthtelling, either. As we typically say when we get stuck on a story: Where did I lie? That’s usually the spot where the wheels came off.