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Can’t we be friends? A memoir vs. novel smackdown

You think we're fighting; I think we're finally talking.

Every August at Lighthouse we hold a 4-week course, Is it a Novel… or a Memoir?. Novelist William Haywood Henderson spends half of the time and all his masculine wiles persuading writers to write novels; memoirist Shari Caudron spends the other half charming and courting the uninitiated to write memoirs. The unspoken question is always: Who will win the most converts? It gets contentious.

I asked the two to make a case for their chosen genre. Things got a little heated, as you’ll see…

Bill: Novels rock. They’re big and rich and amazingly wonderful and pretty. I can’t imagine that a memoir could compare in any way.

Shari: Yes, Bill, novels can be rich and wonderful and pretty. But who buys them anymore? A thorough review of recent book sales data (read: a quick Google search), reveals the fiction market has declined 13 percent this year, while sales of memoir and biography are up 9 percent. Why fictionalize when readers hunger for reality?

Bill: Shari, you ignorant slut. Readers hunger for reality? Really? Have you looked out your window lately? Reality sucks. Even memoirists know that. How else to explain the creative license they take with characters and situations? Don’t think an incident fits your theme? Alter it. Don’t remember exactly what people said? Make it up. You’re not handsome or noble enough in real life? No problem; in your memoir you’re a stunning hero. Fine, but that’s fiction writing.

Shari: Bill, we’ll have to talk about your anger issues at another time. For now, though, let’s stick to the topic at hand. You’re right: the temptation to fabricate is always present in personal narrative, that’s what makes it a far more challenging art form than fiction. Novelists stare out the window and write down any old thing that occurs to them. Whereas memoirists—if they are true to their craft and don’t fabricate, as they shouldn’t–must deal with the inconvenience of facts, the privacy concerns of real people, the difficulty of finding a narrative arc in a life that’s ongoing. Simply put: true artists (or should I say “truth artists”) will always choose the memoir route.

Bill: I’m not angry, damnit! But I wonder, how many writers actually have a compelling life story to tell, scene by scene? I’m going to guess not that many. (Is that my guess because I’m angry? Yes.) But writers can take us beyond the surface details of their lives into their inner lives, and if  that inner life is created with intensity and beauty there is nothing more compelling in literature. Reality doesn’t always lend itself to evoking that inner life, not without “creative license,” but it’s within those moments of “creative license” that emotional truth resides. Novels offer a purity of emotion without constraints. Novels are more true than memoirs. Novelists are the true “truth artists.”  Really. Truly. Why would I make this up?

Shari: Oh, Bill, (she says, shaking her head). Maybe your life story isn’t compelling, but plenty of life stories are. Of course, you and I both know it’s not what happened or didn’t to someone that matters. It’s all in how the story is told. The story of Tobias Wolff’s youth is not that compelling or different from the lives of so many other kids. But he turned his life into art and he told it truthfully. So did Mary Karr and Frank McCourt and Jeannette Walls and, and…  Just as story ideas, on their own, don’t turn into great novels. Interesting experiences, on their own, don’t make for good memoirs. Writers have to learn and practice the craft of narrative—which is ultimately the same whether we’re talking about fiction or nonfiction. Isn’t it? Aren’t we really more alike than different?

Bill: OMG, BFF, I think I see what you’re saying! It’s not the story; it’s the quality of the telling! I hadn’t thought of that. So a memoirist can evoke emotion without resorting to lying? A novelist can lie all he wants and still not evoke emotion? It all comes down to craft! (facepalm) I guess we’re not so different after all. I guess we all can get along. But how does someone choose if it’s better to write a memoir or a novel? Uh-oh, another things for me to get angry about?

Shari: Was that sarcasm oozing from your last answer? You novelists. Jeez. There are all sorts of ways for people to determine whether their story is best told as fiction or nonfiction and I was thinking, uh, gosh, like maybe you and I could co-teach a class where we review some of the issues writers consider when deciding whether to take the fiction or non-fiction route.

Bill: Sarcasm? I don’t even know what that is. But get back to me about co-teaching that class after I finish making up shit for the next chapter of my novel. The class sounds fascinating. Really.

Okay, I had to cut them off there. But if you want to jump into the fray (it actually evolved into something kind of beautiful, a Kumbaya moment among genre rivals, if you will), sign up here. And it would be remiss of me not to also remind you of the October 22-23 events featuring memoirist (and poet) Mary Karr. Maybe I’ll get a poet in the ring with Shari next.

5 comments on “Can’t we be friends? A memoir vs. novel smackdown

  1. mjhenry
    August 6, 2011

    It’s easy to see why this class is always so much fun!

  2. Nick Arvin
    August 9, 2011

    Excuse me! Pardon me! This isn’t my fight, and it’s all in good fun, but may I be sort of engineery and overly serious and jump in and nitpick? Personally, I don’t think the statistics about book sales are apropos to the argument (really? a percentage increase in sales is the reason you’re wrenching your soul inside out to write a memoir?), but since the subject has been raised, I’d like to point out this little fact-based nugget: “One of the strongest growth areas was adult fiction, which had a revenue increase of 8.8 percent over three years.”

  3. andreadupree
    August 9, 2011

    Hear hear, Arvin! Love the fact-based nuggets with sauce. (Seriously–love to have some good news from time to time.)

  4. Jeanne
    September 1, 2011

    Patricia Selbert and Pico Iyer recently discussed writing a novel vs. a memoir. it’s a very interesting discussion. you can watch the video here:

  5. bluekelly66
    September 28, 2011

    This is hilarious! And at the same time it does shed light on writing issues that only learning our craft can fix. Thank you—this was delightful.

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This entry was posted on August 5, 2011 by in Complaint, Cool Events, Delusions, The Scoop, The Write Idea, Writing.

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