the world of memoir writing, the lines between fiction and
nonfiction are being blurred
Dennis Loy Johnson
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.”
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
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
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
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
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