Sunday, November 18, 2012

From Fake Memoirs to True-Life Novels--The New Trends in Publishing Genres

Camilla is a writer in New York who has attended many of my classes.  She's celebrating the completion of her manuscript, a memoir about her family in Italy during World War II--a rich and interesting tale, full of great descriptions and intriguing characters. 

I always enjoyed reading Camilla's story, and I loved watching it evolve.  Now that she is officially done, she's beginning the search for agents and possible publishers, and she's running into a dilemma. 

Quite a common dilemma these days, as the publishing world is changing by the minute and new forms of books are emerging.

Camilla wrote me about it:

I have been struggling with pinning down the genre, as memoirs are rarely taken if the person isn't famous.  Although calling it a novel seems untruthful.  In truth it is a bit of a hybrid, with scenes and dialogue created around facts, and my part of the story is 99 percent factual.  So I am pretty stuck.

I spoke with a published author who was very lovely and suggested I call it historical fiction.  Yet is it remote enough in time, being about World War II? 

And I have all these photographs that kick off some of the chapters.  I think these old photos really add to the story.

Do you think I can get away with calling it family history, and still attract an agent?  I am taking a great deal of time in the agent selection, checking their interests, etc.

I just wondered if you had any words of advice as I pass into this phase!
The First Big Question:  What's Really True?
What is a memoir?  It's a true story, written by the author, about their own life.  It's not an autobiography--not covering an entire life, just a snapshot of it.  Most memoirs revolve around a theme or event.  Because of this, twenty years ago, many booksellers didn't know what to do with the memoir genre.  They shelved memoir with biography and autobiography--because back then only famous people published stories about their own lives. 

Now it's different.  Memoir is hot genre.  It has produced unprecedented scandals and changes in publishing.  Memoirs easily climb to the top of bestseller lists these days, and ordinary (read:  not famous) people with extraordinary events or different perspectives are now welcome by publishers. 

Because it's a hot genre, many writers have tried to climb aboard, with stories that are not really true.  And this has led to the big question:  How much of memoir needs to be true?  How can we really remember accurately?  And how does an honest writer tell an accurate story of her life? 

Reliability of Memory--An Oxymoron?
Patricia Hampl, in her marvelous book I Could Tell You Stories, writes about this dilemma:   "No memoirist writes for long without experiencing an unsettling disbelief about the reliability of memory, a hunch that memory is not, after all, just memory." 

Add to that brain science's recent discoveries that memory changes as we remember something.  What's a memoirist to do?

How it is possible to accurately tell what happened when we were very young, or very traumatized, or very ignorant?

This has provoked wonderful discussions among writers.  Hampl suggests that there are two kinds of truth in writing about real life:

the emotional truth
the factual truth

Learning the difference--and finding out where you stand on the line between the two--is the first step. 

What's in a Name?  Fake Memoirs
Some writers haven't bothered.  They just had a great story to tell, and they really didn't care if it was accurate.  Thus was born the "fake memoir." 

A well-known fake memoirist was James Frey.   His 2003 book, A Million Little Pieces, made it to Oprah's book club, the highest rung on the promotional ladder, until his story was revealed as false and  Oprah denounced him on air. 

Margaret Seltzer followed close behind with her 2008 memoir about growing up in Los Angeles amid gang wars and drug lords, Love and Consequences.  When her sister outed her, saying they had no such background, the published book was pulled from the shelves.   

This past summer we saw the downfall of former New Yorker writer Jonah Lehrer's.  His book, Imagine:  How Creativity Works, opens with a great story about Bob Dylan being stuck.  This supposedly occurred right before Dylan wrote the song that changed rock and roll history,"Like a Rolling Stone." Researchers who knew Dylan a bit better than Lehrer revealed that Lehrer made up the Dylan quotes.  The story might be accurate, but the quotes were not--so Lehrer lost his job, and his book was pulled from the shelves. 

But this is not new.  Even before these recent scandals were quieter ones:  Two of my favorite The Education of Little Tree (1976) and Mutant Message Down Under (1991) were published as memoirs of life with native populations but turned out to be fictionalized. 

I loved both of these books.  I remember how they held me up during some tough periods in my life, and how it made little difference to me that they were not true life.  The Education of Little Tree was about a boy living with the Cherokees, but actually written by "a former white supremacist," according to Wikipedia.   Shocking, and a betrayal of a reader's faith.  But to be honest, I still loved the book, and I still own a copy.

Who likes to be lied to?   I don't.  I depend on truth, or as close to truth as possible, in what I read. 

But I do love a great story.  I also depend on being moved, emotionally and intellectually and spiritually, by the books I love.

So here's the rub.  The Education of Little Tree, Mutant Message Down Under, Imagine all drew me in as a reader.  I got a lot from reading them.  They were good stories, well told.  It pained me to hear what the writer had done, in each case.  But the books still engaged me.

Am I a flawed person to think this?  Hampl might say that I was drawn in by an emotional truth in each book, even as I was later repelled by its falsity in facts.

So there's the line:  Emotional truth and factual truth--where do you comfortably stand, as a writer? 

Back to Camilla's question.

True-Life Novels and Faction Books
Writers, who are delving into the unreliable area of memory, are beginning to wise up, and a new genre is emerging in publishing today:  the true-life novel or faction book. 

Jeannette Walls authored a very popular memoir, The Glass Castle, then went on to write its prequel, Half-Broke Horses.  Although The Glass Castle is labeled as "memoir," and we still assume all those events are true, Half-Broke Horses is called "a true-life novel." 

Walls comments in the introduction that she remembered this story of her grandmother's life, but since she wasn't actually there to hear the dialogue and see the details of facial expression and other facts, she made them up based on what she knew.  And because of this imagining process, it was best to call the book a true-life novel. 

Goodreads, a popular online book-sharing forum, has created a new "shelf" called True-Life Books, which features Walls's novel, as well as The Diary of Anne Frank, A Child Called It, and Elie Weisel's Night.  Where's the line here, as far as genre?  These last three are classified as memoir, as Walls's latest book is not.  Where's the line? 

Some consider Truman Capote's In Cold Blood a work of journalism and fiction both--"the originator of the nonfiction novel and the forerunner of the New Journalism movement," says one reviewer.

Those who love factual journalism may feel slightly nauseous as we end this discussion.  As a newspaper writer for many years, I can relate. 

"How can you tell what is real anymore, and what is just storytelling?" one student complained.  For factual-truth writers, storytelling is nothing in relation to what is real.  But for other writers, the thing that matters is whether the reader is engaged. 

This comes back to my original question:  where do you stand on the line?    


  1. Just curious... how about "based on true" fiction? Is it simply not as marketable because it has to be shelved as a novel? Is reality TV influencing this pendulum swing toward "true" stories?

    As a profile writer, I am not able to avoid having a strong slant in my writing. I write portraits of people, generally in their most positive light (home tours, artist profiles, etc.) It's not comprehensive journalism, certainly not expose. But I believe I have an inherent pact with my reader that the sentences I write are true to the best of my knowledge. That often necessitates fact-checking when my memory or my notes seem foggy. I've had story subjects ask me to insert a snippet that is false (believe it or not), and I simply won't do it.

    In a similar vein, when I read memoir, I realize there will be a strong slant--it's literary self-portraiture after all. But I trust that the writer is not inserting complete falsehood just to keep a story going. I trust that a memoir writer will do some of their own fact-checking when needed and when possible.

    That said, I have a manuscript that is based-on-true but definitely heads into fiction territory at some points. To respect the story subject's privacy, it is probably best to keep it fictionalized. Yup, that means it will be harder to market--especially for a magazine writer turned newbie author. But I think it's worth it to maintain my own sense of integrity.

    This is a great make-you-think post. Thanks so much for stirring the pot on this one. Love it!

  2. So glad you enjoyed the post, Anika. Thanks for the thought-provoking response!