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.

Love on the Rocks

My favorite line from James Frey‘s interview with the Wall Street Journal about his new novel, Bright Shiny Morning: “Most of the facts in the book are real.”

The WSJ has an excerpt from the novel, and the paper really should’ve been presented it as a quiz/reader’s guide: How many alleged facts here are accurate? What are the odds that James Frey was sneering and consulting Very Little Known Facts when he was composing this passage?

It is legal for human beings to marry rocks in the City of Los Angeles.

The first such marriage occurred in 1950, when a secretary at an autoparts factory named Jannene Swift married a large piece of granite.

The Port of Los Angeles handles almost 200 million tons of cargo every year.

For some reason that, despite extensive scientific research, remains unknown, potato chips weigh more in Los Angeles than in any other part of America.

There are sixty-five people in Los Angeles who have the legal name Jesus Christ.

There is more pornography produced in Los Angeles than in the rest of the world combined.

Take That, Nonexistent Problem!

Diana E. Sheets argues that the great American novel is dead. To do so, she lines up a couple of strawmen and proceeds to beat the crap out of ’em:

Path-breaking fiction telling the American story has been replaced with fabulist memoir (James Frey’s, “A Million Little Pieces” in 2003) and celebrity scandal (“If I Did It,” O.J. Simpson’s “hypothetical” account of the murder of his wife and Ronald Goldman. It was to be published by Regan Books/HarperCollins before it was cancelled and later reissued by Beaufort Books as “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer” by the Goldman family with comments by ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves and journalist Dominick Dunne).

Are these the only American stories to be had in publishing today? What if books were judged based on ethical standards of quality and content?

Right. Last time I was at a bookstore it was nothing but Frey and O.J., O.J. and Frey. I wept, I tell ya. I wept. There’s a longer version of the piece, with quotes from Network, on Sheets’ site.