Tuesday, December 30, 2008

We need a new name: Fictoir? Memtion?

I told myself last time this happened that I would not post again about debunked "memoirs," but then this newest one really put me over the edge. Like the first major not-a-memoir, this one was touted by Oprah (even before its release), which is now in question.

I just want to make one point. Or a few. There's coincidence, the "can't make this stuff up" kind of wonderful, ridiculous but true coincidence which drives many good (and real) memoirs, and then there's preposterously contrived "coincidences" which smell and act like fiction – because they are.

Yes, sometimes the most circumspect nonfiction writers must elaborate beyond what they precisely can prove, such as inventing likely dialogue which can vivify actual events at which one was not present or was too young or impaired to precisely recall. But that's different than completely making up events which the author absolutely knows never to have occurred, and then injecting them into an "otherwise" true account, simply because it will make for more compelling reading (and book sales, and film rights).

I'm thinking the publishing industry needs a new category, just to keep things clear. Fictionish Memoir? Memoirish fiction? Memtion? Fictoir? Hey, I’m only half-kidding.

Here's what actually bothers me most: As a nonfiction writer, I have deep admiration for my fiction writing colleagues, and regard writing fiction as a far more difficult creative literary endeavor. So if one day I ever were to try to publish my (currently very fledgling) fiction, I'm thinking I'd be honored to call it just that -- fiction.

And hey, if you think you want to be a memoirist, but it turns out you can't keep yourself from throwing in made-up stuff, then maybe you are actually a novelist instead, so why not call it a novel? Go ahead, write it in first person if you like, and please do toss in anything that's verifiably true (don't all first novels do this anyway?), but please don't call it NONfiction. Or memoir. Or, please God, especially not creative nonfiction.

Update: In the New York Times, Motoko Rich and Brian Stelter, include this quote:

“It’s a little disturbing that this is happening so often, and as an industry we need to get our act together,” said Morgan Entrekin, president of the publisher Grove/Atlantic.

and this:

Certainly, industry observers wondered how editors at Berkley and producers for Ms. Winfrey did not at least question the veracity of Mr. Rosenblat’s story, given some improbable details. In the book, he wrote not only that he reunited with his wife in New York years after she threw apples to him over the fence, but also that he had actually gone on a blind date with her in Israel a few years earlier but did not recognize her when he met her again.

“You’d think somebody would say, ‘Hmm, that’s amazing, let’s just spend an hour or a day seeing how plausible that is,’ ” said Kurt Andersen, the novelist and host of the public radio program “Studio 360.”

Comments? I'm always interested in what others think about this topic.


Anonymous said...

....because, for some reason, it's easier to sell if it's "true". it's "better" if it's "true".

Greil Marcus has written about this w/r/t/ songwriting, that there's a value judgment made about whether a song is about something that actually happened. that the 70's brought an end to the value of the songwriter as storyteller.

Here's a story about my first novel: it is a novel. It is not my life story nor is it one of those "let me mask some elements really badly but essentially it is my life story" novels. There are bits and pieces of hundreds of people's lives in that book, sure. When I was querying agents, I got a response from one that said, "It is so clear that this is YOUR story, I was weeping at multiple points in the manuscript - I do not understand your unwillingness to own the story and unless you do I will not be willing to represent it."

The fact that my FICTION made the agent weep at multiple points didn't want to make her represent it.

Luckily I got an agent who values my fiction writing talent and isn't trying to sell my work as memoir. But I can see how someone very hungry and desperate would say, "Say, you know what - you got me. You're right. How do you think I should fix this? Let's work together to tell MY STORY". I never ever considered doing that - I want to write FICTION - but sometimes my agent and I bemoan the exaggerated status of "did it REALLY happen to you" vs. "it's a good story." Apparently the latter isn't enough these days. Or at least harder to sell than the former.

(btw, thanks for all your posts about low-residency MFA, since it made me decide NOT to go low-res!)

Jennifer said...

Love reading your blog. You might want to look at William Maxwell - in particular So Long See You Tomorrow and the famous Paris Review interview. He believed that the best fiction comes from our lives and wrote what he called autobiographical fiction.

His mother died when he was young. He wrote about it and wrote about it, and felt he finally got it perfectly right in So Long.

Look for the interview - he really explains what he means in the interview. If you can find it - email me. I have a copy of it.

Jennifer Rumford

Anonymous said...

Hi Lisa,

I know you were half-kidding when you said we needed a new category for a debunked memoir, but how about calling it an autobiografaux? Or a leery tale? You could even call it a ploy story?

Michelle Hutchinson

Michelle O'Neil said...

I don't know what to say. It sure puts credibilty to question for all memoir writers.


Dana said...

Here I was thinking I'd made up a cool new word for my newest book idea...naturally someone already came up with it! Combining real life stories with fiction is fine-the author/agent/industry just need to call it by the right name. I can see it now-the newest (completely overpopulated) section in the local bookstore-FICTOIR, can you guess which parts are real? Great post.