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Larger Than Life

In the world of memoir writing, the lines between fiction and nonfiction are being blurred

By Dennis Loy Johnson

It’s a line I’ve heard from every fiction writer I know: Upon witnessing some unlikely event or incredible coincidence, they’ll say, “If I put that in a novel, no one would believe it.”

I was reminded of this recently when a friend was telling me his theory that a certain popular memoir had begun life as a novel. There were too many things in it, he said, that struck him as, well, hard to believe.

He’s not the only one making the charge against some recent nonfiction, particularly memoirs.

Author Judy Blunt, who won a Whiting Award for Breaking Clean, her memoir about escaping with her three small children from what she described as a harsh situation on her husband’s Montana ranch, admitted she made up a story about her father-in-law busting up her typewriter with a sledgehammer. The New York Times reported that other members of her family were also “shell-shocked” from stories in the book.

Even Blunt’s “parents are reluctant to discuss the substance of her memoir,” said the Times. “Her mother, Shirley, would say only that ‘Judy sure has a way with words.’”

Another recent memoir questioned for truthfulness is that of journalist Kyle Spencer, She’s Gone Country: Dispatches From a Lost Soul in the Heart of Dixie. In a devastating review in the Winston-Salem Journal, critic Paul O’Connor points out that the book rests on the concept of New Yorker Spencer venturing into the “vast unknown” of the South to accept a job in Raleigh, N.C.

O’Connor says Spencer paints a nasty picture of the place as “a string of clichés complete with characters named Bo and people screaming ‘hee haw.’”

But he also uncovers the fact that Spencer’s premise was dishonest: Raleigh wasn’t new to her at all. She’d lived in neighboring Chapel Hill for years while earning her undergraduate degree at the University of North Carolina. “Spencer neglects to tell her readers this because such a revelation would undermine the thesis of the book,” says O’Connor.

Perhaps even more significant is a revelation Spencer makes herself: Early in the book she refers to it as an “exaggerated memoir.”

Hello?

And memoirs aren’t the only trendy nonfiction books being questioned for honesty recently. Last week in the Raleigh News & Observer, book editor J. Peder Zane discussed his attempts to verify the truthfulness of one of the more popular books in the country right now: Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls, by Rachel Simmons. Thanks to appearances on Oprah and Dateline NBC and in numerous newspaper features, it has become a bestseller and helped to coin the name for the trendy new concept of “mean girls.”

But Zane, the father of three young girls, noted that the voices of many of the young girls quoted in the book “are startlingly sophisticated. They possess a tremendous emotional and intellectual maturity, an incredible ability to observe their behavior objectively and the verbal skills to describe their actions and feelings lucidly.” So he contacted the author through her publisher, Harcourt. Simmons offered to play him tapes of the “verbatim” quotes, and the two scheduled a time to do it.

But then, “A series of complications arose . . . .” First Simmons cited “scheduling difficulties,” says Zane. Then, she couldn’t find her tape recorder. Then she had a migraine.

Zane never did get to hear those quotes.

So what gives in the world of nonfiction these days? Why is it leaning so close to—maybe even into—the world of fiction? And why don’t they just call it fiction?

I like my friend’s theory that some of these books started out as probably-not-very-good fiction. His idea was that, in any case, as novels coming from unknowns, they would have been a case of “Who cares?” for most New York editors. But call them memoirs—something that happened to a real person—and they become more interesting to an editor, especially given the current rage for the form.

But what explains that rage for the form and, therefore, the push to pump them out?

You’ll note that the trend in memoirs at the moment isn’t for books by the famous or powerful or their intimates—for hundreds of years, the qualities that merited the status to publish a memoir. And something that seems to compensate for those missing elements nowadays is a significantly upped dosage of voyeurism, if not outright sleaze. Readers are given increasing access to the sex life of unknowns, to one-sided depictions of intensely private moments with parents or spouses, to lurid scenes of personal degradation.

The various revelations of smarminess behind the smarminess seem to be segueing straight out of the previous, similar scandal involving dishonest pop historians—all of whom, you’ll recall, with the notable exception of Doris Kearns Goodwin, were men, whereas the memoirs under fire, especially the most titillating and humiliating, are by women. (Yes, there are some written by men, but they rarely if ever get as big as, say, the stupid books written by Elizabeth Wurtzel, whom many hold responsible for the current sleazy memoir rage. Of course, men are at a distinct disadvantage when competing with someone like Wurtzel, who was more than happy to let herself be exploited in classic manner by exposing her breasts on the cover of her first book.)

All of which speaks both to what’s best and worst of this moment in the sun. For one thing, we’ve got the wherewithal—technologically and otherwise—to better monitor whether prominent commentators are, as Nancy Sinatra would say, lyin’ when they oughta be truthin’.

On the other hand, we see that some stereotypes die hard, most particularly stereotypes of sexism and capitalism.

Is it possible that the new trend in memoirs—and let’s face facts: They wouldn’t be publishing so many if they didn’t sell—signifies that people have really had it with fiction? Is it possible, to postulate one wild idea, that TV has now been with us so long that it has ground down our imaginations so that we just can’t imagine along with fictional worlds anymore, and we have to have everything spelled out—we have to have someone declare, “This is real?”

Of course it is. It’s also possible that in general fiction isn’t in one of its better epochs at the moment, and that’ll put a damper on sales, you betcha.

But if it shows anything decisively, the trend in less-than-accurate nonfiction bespeaks what happens when book publishing is corralled by conglomerate publishers: Books are beholden not so much to the truth of their form as to the reality of the bottom line. The whole mess, in other words, suggests nothing so much as the exploitation typical of lowest- common-denominator publishing and retailing.

On the other hand, it also bespeaks natural attraction to storytelling. After all, the questionable tactics we’re talking about here represent a borrowing of the elements of fiction writing: from using ideas of characterization to the structure of dramatic scenes to the idea that life can be depicted as following a thread, like a plot with a beginning, middle, and end. This is something nonfiction, especially memoirs, has always done. It’s just being done in a less aware and more demeaning manner at the moment.

Of course, ultimately what it comes down to is the fact that there is one crucial difference between fiction and nonfiction: Nonfiction isn’t supposed to have made-up stuff in it.

That “exaggerated” nonfiction is becoming more and more acceptable to more and more people—readers, writers, publishers and retailers alike—just throws into stark perspective why some of us at this bizarre moment in the zeitgeist look to fiction, however good or bad it may be, for something fundamental to the literary experience that’s being diluted into travesty elsewhere: authorial honesty.


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