Have Memoirs Won?

Speaking with the Philadelphia Inquirer recently, Ben Yagoda said this:

“When it comes to proving points and making cases, fiction’s day is done.”

Yagoda, a longtime journalist who’s written intelligently about the virtues of narrative nonfiction, has book coming out soon on the history of the memoir, so he’s clearly been studying the matter. I’ll be curious to see how he makes this argument, because it seems hard to defend. It may be that fiction is dying in comparison to memoir as far as sales go. But the point of fiction isn’t to “prove points” or “make cases,” at least not in any journalistic sense. Sure, sometimes it has a relevant message to deliver about current affairs, but if that were fiction’s chief virtue then fiction’s day has been done for a very long time. And yet the novels and story collections keep coming.

Inquirer reporter Dianna Marder spoke with a few other people for the story, shedding light on what Yagoda may mean in saying fiction’s day is done. One editor at a publishing house says that memoirs are appealing because Americans like “pulled up by your bootstraps’ stories in which odds or adversities are overcome.” So it may just be that Horatio Alger‘s day is done. One professor says that “People don’t believe they can learn anything from fiction anymore,” while another says that “We’ve lost our faith in history books”; both imply that memoirs can give us our teaching moments and our faith back. Or, as Georgetown’s Maureen Corrigan puts it, “Memoirs are easier for book groups to discuss.”

None of which speaks to the elephant in the room: If memoir has overtaken the role of fiction, why are so many memoirists tempted to fictionalize and embellish their work? In the case of the most infamous fraud, James Frey, he added a note about his embellishments to later editions of A Million Little Pieces: “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require,” he wrote in a note to the reader (PDF). What better way is there to prove points and make cases about yourself?

Yagoda doesn’t discuss fabrications in the Inquirer interview, and the Publishers Weekly review of his book suggests he doesn’t spend much time exploring the matter between hard covers either. (“Without dwelling too heavily on the genre’s most recent scandals….”) I can’t criticize a book I haven’t read, but hopefully Yagoda spends some time addressing the matter head-on, because those fabrications aren’t odd little outliers in the history of nonfiction narrative: They speak to what we expect out of both novels and memoirs.

6 thoughts on “Have Memoirs Won?

  1. The point of fiction, as you say, isn’t to be didactic or make moral. Bernard Malamud said that fiction “celebrates life, and gives us our measure.” That is a different purpose that requires a different craft– in memoir, the writer is constrained by fact, and part of the reader’s satisfaction depends on the sense they are getting the ‘truth’. In fiction, form is necessity, and every aspect of the made object seeks to point toward meaning, each element of craft (event, detail, metaphor, dialogue or exposition) inclined as best the writer can toward ‘truth’. A ‘journalist’ failing to understand that distinction isn’t surprising… the direction of publishing in the last twenty years has made ‘narrative nonfiction’, ‘memoir,’ and ‘literary journalism’ the dominant mode, leading Universities to establish ‘literary nonfiction’ programs (I’m thinking of the one nearest me, at the University of Oregon) out of their j-schools with faculty who’ve published memoirs of questionable merit making foolish claims about the ‘superiority’ of what they do.

    In the case of Mr. Frey, and other recent dustups such as the ‘East L.A. Native American Blood/Crip drugrunner turned Eugene, Oregon, single mom’, the writers broke ethical boundaries in a way that likely has more to do with the state of publishing and the current plight of the fiction writer than anything else. Publishers want memoirs, and take few chances in an industry in crisis. Mr. Frey sought to publish his book as fiction– and failed again and again, until he was encouraged by a publisher to sell it as nonfiction given that being 90% true was ‘close enough’. That’s unethical, but I’m sympathetic to Mr. Frey’s position: either his book fails to see print, or he gains a wide readership, whatever the shame of being dressed down by Oprah.

  2. Feh. I read a lot — over 70 books so far this year — but I rarely give memoirs a thought. I read mostly fiction, but when I slip over to non-fiction, it’s usually something historical. Some celeb, or retired politician, or someone who lived thru a crappy childhood or abuse, mental illness, etc., well, they don’t have much to tell me that isn’t likely to be a cliche. Plus — and related — most memoirists don’t write very well — I assume it’s either ghostwritten (if the person’s famous) or heavily massaged by editors. I realize that makes me different from many readers, but I already knew that.

  3. I thought the Georgetown scholar’s comments about bookgroups were genius. And, hey, nothing against bookgroups.

    It’s just that the novel of modernist genius really does posit a unique relationship between the goddish allknowing author and the individual reader, who is meant to decipher. Like, what would I say about Under the Volcano, for example, even though I love it? I’d probably talk about Lowry’s alcoholism and those rumors that his wife murdered him, etc., simply because it would be difficult to go into whatever particular esoteric meanings I assigned to particular passages of ecstatic strange beautiful prose.

    And who know about the real issue there, the one about sales numbers and popularity and trends, etc. It would be nice to see some comprehensive data, not just recently, but going all the way back, about readership and so forth. How many people were buying Under the Volcano in 1948, for example? I don’t know. I’d love to learn, even though it’s probably hard to really be certain of that stuff, now. Anyone happen to have any good resources for that kind of stuff?

    The lack of numbers in these pieces is what always irks me. Like NYTimes youth-trends articles…

  4. It’s all about the ‘voyeurism’. Oprah, Dr. Phil, Maury, Montel, et al. Confession & testimonial, too, have long been the hallmark of evangelical awakening.

    There’s also the schadenfreude and the ‘there-but-for-the-grace-of-god-go-I’ aspects, which are, of course, merely sub specie voyeurism.

    Jim H.

  5. Fiction is not over. That has been said for a long time. And yet it keeps coming–powerfully and beautifully. It seems to always get a rise, though, to say that fiction is dead–a little magnet of attraction. Your piece is great and asks the right questions. I also like the comment about voyeurism from im H. Best, Martha

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