When does it stop being memoir and start being fiction?

(This isn't strictly about crime fiction, so feel free to skip....)

Today Augusten Burroughs and St. Martin's announced that they'd settled out of court with the Turcotte family, whom Burroughs had written about (hilariously and scandalously) in his memoir Running With Scissors.

We all know memoirs aren't 100% true...besides the subjective narrator, there are a million little pieces (heh) in a memoir that get changed for various reasons. Pseudonyms, time compression, character melding (where two or more individuals are melded into one for narrative's sake)...all these are commonly employed, and yet even then no one seems to question a book's status as memoir.

I know Burroughs isn't a crime writer, and neither are other entertaining memoirists (Caroline Knapp, Jeanette Walls, Mary Karr) -- but I've read true-crime books that are also sold as memoir, and most of them come with editor's notes about details that have been changed, compressed, or otherwise fictionalized.

In particular, I'm thinking of a memoir by an Oregon P.I. who helped solve a grisly case of two missing teenage girls...the writer was not only a detective, but also a distant relation-by-marriage of the teens. It seemed...well...fudged. A lot.

My question is: When does a memoir stop being a memoir and become fiction based on actual events?

Views: 50

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

She used a fillet knife, didn't she?

More than one American of my acquaintance wished aloud that our politicians of the same character as James Frey could be held accountable in so public a forum.
There's a big issue with trust in the media in the UK at the moment, predominantly after some TV phone-in scams continued to take people's money after the winner had been decided and a documentary about a terminally ill man compressed real events for editorial purposes, and that has led to various the TV News programmes looking at how they present stories and whether they can get rid of editing tricks to convince the audience the facts aren't being manipulated.

As with memoirs, I don't think you can draw a hard line between fact and fiction. Can you say that if 10% is tweaked and 90% is true it's still a factual memoir? What if the main events are intact, but minor points are changed for brevity?

As you pointed out, recounting an event after the fact inevitably leads to some degree of distortion. I think the audience has to recognise that a memoir, news report, whatever, simply is what it is: a presentation of facts, which may or may not be accurate or complete. On that basis, you can go off and seek other accounts if necessary. Faithfully accepting a single account at face value leaves you open to being misled and it's not entirely the author's fault if you get duped as a result.

Another related question might be: when does fiction become autobiography? But there are people on here far more qualified to talk about that one than me. Mentioning no names. Though those names might begin with D and M. And I'm not talking Dangermouse here (though there is a passing resemblance).
Gee. Dangermouse's memoirs might be interesting, at that.
When you sell your memoir because you're a famous person, chances are good that major facts can be checked against other people's recall. When you're a nobody with a few uninteresting experiences with drugs, suicide,crime, or prostitution (and who doesn't have some of those, you ask -- well maybe a very few), then you can lie your head off. The most important point to remember is that the public wants its sleaze in mega doses.
Actually, there isn't a point. Fiction is fiction. As for making money: People eat up this stuff and sells very well indeed.
(I loved the Oprah incident. Well deserved by all involved).
When you're a nobody with a few uninteresting experiences with drugs, suicide,crime, or prostitution (and who doesn't have some of those, you ask -- well maybe a very few), then you can lie your head off. The most important point to remember is that the public wants its sleaze in mega doses.

Now you've got me imagining Jimmy Carter's editor: "Habitat for Humanity? Peace Corps? You mean to tell me you never took a weekend in Tijuana? Smoked a little herb with Amy?"

It's funny you mentioned the sordid, because that was part of the problem in the example I cited at the top (the Oregon P.I.'s true-crime story). The author seemed to elide a lot of sleazy details that were actually important to understanding what happened. One of the murdered teenagers had been allowed to spend the night more than once with the creepy fortyish neighbor who killed her, and it spoke to the character of the girl's mother. But the author, clearly uncomfortable with characterizing the woman, summed her up, essentially, as a "single mother with a lot of problems." In that case, I think the P.I. should've turned to fiction; she would have had a better book.
Jeez, Jon, aren't you fed up with the constant barrage of that stuff yet? We get it on talk shows, on prime time TV drama, in real crime stories, in films, in books (it's becoming a cliche there). Frankly, Oprah's guest was totally uninteresting about his book and his experiences but very interesting in the way he and Ms. Talese reacted to her questioning. Oprah's reaction ("That's what I get for trusting people and opening my heart to their pain?") was also good.
Defoe was a good journalist. He used contemporary broadsheets and the death counts that were available. And Samuel Pepys was an eyewitness; he confirms much of the anecdotal evidence. The Journal of the Plague Year always struck me as nonfiction. Now Robinson Crusoe is another matter.
Yes, the bad stuff happens (for Shakespeare and writers before and after), but it's really what it does to people (the bystanders, among others) that matters, not the gory crime, or the illicit drugs, or the prostitution. The attraction of such subjects for readers (viewers) lies in the vicarious experience of another's descent into the abyss. It's really a lust for blood and accounts for ancient Roman games and modern rubber-necking at accident/murder scenes. We should be able to give readers a bit more than that.
Well, actually I've written about them also. But fiction. The thing about memoirs, diaries, and autobiographies is that they are all about the narrator. So far I haven't found an autobiography that wasn't written by an egotist, though some have been charming. This current fad about memoirs would simply be a matter of an egotistical person exaggerating their experiences in order to make themselves more important.
I'm more interested in a compelling story and something approaching the emotional truth than I am in a raw recitation of facts ("On Tuesday, March the 9th, I woke up and made a breakfast of coffee—cream, no sugar—wheat toast and hardboiled eggs. I watched part of the Today Show. It was raining...").

And that's why God made publish-on-demand.

Years ago, a friend of my grandfather's lost his son in a drunk-driving accident. The poor man wrote a memoir and had it printed by Vantage Press. We all got copies. It was very much like you describe. Painful to read, in more than one sense of the word.

I personally don't have a problem with the "embellished" or fictionalized memoir; in fact, I always assume when reading a memoir that any writer worth a damn would have probably tweaked the story to make it as interesting and compelling as possible.

I guess it's a question of the tack you choose to take. Tobias Wolff and Pat Conroy both wrote extensively about their fathers/stepfathers, but one chose memoir and the other chose fiction, and each seemed like the right choice. But someone like Jeannette Walls and her memoir (The Glass Castle)... I think a novel about a woman who grew up homeless and became a New York columnist, with her parents still living in the streets below, would be Judith Krantz territory if it weren't true.

Maybe it's just a question of which label (memoir or fiction) brings the reader more verisimilitude and pleasure...and which one leaves the writer and the publisher least open to lawsuits.
I have mixed feelings about the settlement concerning Burroughs book. I'm a huge fan of his, but knowing that he settled kind of makes me wonder was any of it true? Of course the Turcotte's are going to say, 'Yeah, that's what life in our house was really like.', but it would be nice to know what was true, what wasn't, etc.

That said, if even just a small percentage of what he wrote about them is true, they're still nuts. But the rest would be fiction based on true events.
In memoir, you can compress, recreate conversations and fill in gaps, but you shouldn't make anything up. It should be written as best you can remember, and whatever you have to do to fill that in should be presented as your impression and/or memory, not attributed as fact.

It doesn't seem like it's that hard. Of course, the lives of 99.999% of people aren't that interesting. The only thing more confusing to me than why people keep writing them, is why people keep reading them.
An interesting question that also perhaps brings in the whole faction/fiction debate. The recent film about Truman Capote suggested that Capote was influenced in his writing of In Cold Blood by his relationship to Perry Smith - so while it's always been known that the book was a documentary that used fictional devices, maybe there was more of the 'memoir' in there than Capote acknowledged? After all, it took 6 years of his life to produce, so it would have been hard for him to have left out his own feelings and experiences altogether. And of course this is bound to be true for those practitioners who move from law enforcement (or legal representation) to writing crime - Grisham, Turow, Wambaugh etc. A lot of what they write must surely be memoir, even if unacknowledged?


CrimeSpace Google Search

© 2024   Created by Daniel Hatadi.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service