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.