March 12, 2008

Memoirs Proven False

Seems like every week a publishing house distances itself from a memoir they've just released. We've all seen the silly Oprah episode with James Frey, so I won't belabor that old hat. Recently it was Margaret B. Jones' gangland memoir Love and Consequences about growing up in a foster family and being a drug runner for LA gangs. Jones, who's last name is actually Seltzer, hails from the affluent Sherman-Oaks neighborhoods, was never in the foster care program, and well...is all Caucasian. Whoops. Apparently every once in awhile facts are important. Pure, unadulterated facts that glisten and shimmer with the purity of their very existence. Woe betide a world without them.

The publisher always issues a hasty statement of horror and shock, crying out the voracious violation of its good deeds. Poor, innocent publisher, grievously taken advantage of by a self-serving writer. One gets the picture of Little Red Riding Hood prancing in all her innocent glory through a forest, only to be attacked and savaged by a wolf. Give me a break.

Publishing houses have fact checkers, people that call around and ask questions like, "what high school did you daughter attend during the years 19**-19**" or "did this [insert obscure historical reference here] actually occur during this period"? These people exist so we don't get new memoirs written by an eighteen year old, claiming to have been Eva Braun's former lover, after Adolph. How far do we have to stretch our imaginations to assume these publishers know damn well about the questionable "truth" in the latest story of triumph over adversity? How great a leap of faith is required to know they get away with it most of the time?

Maybe we should give these writers some credit. When Frey was on Oprah for exaggerating some of the details in his book, I applauded his audacity. No, not because he managed to dupe the idiotic, pandering television icon. But because at the end of the day, in spite of fudging a few details, his book affected people, connected with them, and he was getting away with--almost. He exaggerated details to make the story better, to improve the narrative. I mean, that deserves credit doesn't it? Don't all writer's lie? Are we not great fabricators of story, no matter what the source? No, I suppose not. We are meek, subservient scribes who toil and labor under a stark realism. We must write our lives out in cold, merciless factual statements that shine truth from under a bushel basket.

There is something morally repugnant about an upper-class, white woman claiming the gritty street stories of the lesser-privileged as her own. How dare she, right? For shame and all that. I don't like it any more than the next person. But maybe the issue is more that she got caught? How many other memoirs out there are full of shit? Dare we ask such a question? Dare we find out that a book we've held so dear could prove to be a fallacy? Would the book then be less dear?

We are suckers for the human condition. We love to know someone has managed to escape their own hell to a world of greener pastures, flat-screen televisions, and the luxury of high-end prostitutes. Why? Because it confirms our own notions of struggle, however trivial. But in reality, the struggle in the story still exists, whether the facts are straight or not. It's not the fictitious nature of the writing that is at the core, but the compelling quality in which it is told.

For all you memoir writers: how to embellish without getting caught.
Also, a current list of memoir embellishers.

Now that we know the world is a terrible, corrupt place where people actually lie, that's right LIE, about certain details of their lives, what next? Movies that change historical facts to suit their own agenda? Televised news reports that manicure the details of a story to illicit a certain response? How about those silly political speeches that promise the world and deliver the greasy flap of a cardboard box? Or the television evangelist selling the wares of his man-made god?

No, that will never happen. Harry, you go too far. As long as memoirs are held accountable, the world can go on gasping at the shock of its own piety.


Save This Page

12 comments:

Your little sis:) said...

Interesting posting Harry. I often read your postings but just haven't responded to them. I guess my only comment on the posting is the definition of a memoir is suppose to be a story of a historical event that happened to someone writen to the best of their knowledge. So if I were to read a memoir I would expect that the info written would be true and accurate to the best of the writers knowledge. Would it be a memoir if written without the truth? I am led to believe not. Am I wrong? Who knows. But it is interesting.

you little sis:) said...

Ok, so I ment if not written about the truth. Oops::0)

Harry Tournemille said...

Oh, you may be correct "little sis". I'm suggesting that it is impossible to come up with a clear, objective truth. As my friend Robert Martens said, "The world is one great, swaying miasma of lies, semi-lies, and poems".
The very nature of "perspective" denotes some element of untruth. Of course, the question is what is an acceptable amount of untruth is not easily answered. And I think Margaret Seltzer clearly crossed the line.

Anonymous said...

I agee, Margaret did cross the line. You are clearly led to believe things that were untrue. I don't understand how writers can get away with that.

your little sis said...

Sorry Ahrry that was your little sis again!!!

Katie said...

I'm sure you've heard about this one as well, which made the news last week...

Best-selling Holocaust book a hoax

Harry Tournemille said...

Yes'm, indeed I did. I suppose this one falls in the same category of Seltzer? Pure Fiction. And yet I'm not appalled by it. Impressed in one way, disappointed in another.

sam said...

You know who's a bigger liar than Frey or Margaret Jones? GEORGE BUSH. I have some pamphlets you should read. 9/11 never happened, man. It's all in your head. www.dontbelievethelies.org

Harry Tournemille said...

What, you didn't know that? Neither did the holocaust or the Bosnian/Serbian crisis according to some. About five years ago, there was a Polish student in one of my Poli-Sci courses who did a presentation on the Bosnian conflicts. He's thesis was that the accounts of genocide were nothing more than American propaganda, and his arguments were a lot more cogent than I expected--at least his delivery of them. Very strange.

You know, I'm a bigger liar than Frey or Jones too.

Lady Oracle said...

What about "Prisoner of Tehran"? There's another example. By Marina Nemet.

Harry Tournemille said...

I did not know of this one. Thanks for pointing it out.

Theresa said...

Interesting post and comments, Harsinder.
Especially in light of a 'memoir' of sorts that you are writing.