From Pear to Posting

The memoir market is booming, but as Daniel Mendelsohn writes in the January 25th New Yorker article But Enough About Me: What does the popularity of memoirs tell us about ourselves? this is not a new phenomena. (The article is a review of Ben Yagoda’s “fact-packed but not terribly searching” book Memoir: A History.) We’ve gone through several phases of memoir floods in the literary market and it all started with St. Augustine stealing a pear in 371 AD. Mendelsohn writes:

However trivial the crime and perverse its motivation, this bit of petty larceny had enormous consequences: for the teen-ager’s future, for the history of Christianity and Western philosophy, and for the layout of your local Barnes & Noble superstore.

Every memoir boom time (religious leaders confessions, slave narratives, holocaust survivor tales) has also had its share of fake memoirs and the corresponding scandals. In other words, not only are Frey, Defonseca, and Rosenblat phonies, they are unoriginal phonies following the footsteps of American pilgrims writing fake accounts of survival in the wilderness and white Harvard graduates telling fake slave narratives.

So why do authors fake a memoir or some parts of it? Frey said he did it because he wanted his book to have tension and dramatic arcs. Mendelsohn proposes that it’s because authors have trouble distinguishing their truth—or the truth of the character they created on the page—with the objective truth. My own personal opinion is that it comes down to money and the yearning for fame. Why else would someone lay their lives bare and risk being barred from all future family reunions (Check out our own Jaime Wood’s excellent blog Memoir as Self Mutilation on this topic.)

A more interesting question that Mendelsohn asks (and answers) is what caused the current boom in memoirs and the current, seemingly stronger, anger over the phonies. He proposes that talk shows like Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael helped pave the way not just for Oprah Winfrey, but also for our obsession with “real” people’s written life story. Mendelsohn thinks that much of the outrage directed at authors and publishers of fake memoirs “represents a displacement of a large and genuinely new anxiety, about our ability to filter or control the plethora of unreliable narratives coming at us from all directions.” He counts Reality TV, people talking loudly on cell phones, and bloggers as part of that “plethora.”

What do you think? Are we bombarded by too much information (TMI) about other people’s lives? Are we as bloggers contributing to the “new anxiety” that Mendelsohn mentions?

For an excellent and short (14 minutes) interview with Mendehsohn, check out this New Yorker Out Loud podcast.

7 Comments

  • Sam Ligon Sam Ligon says:

    I totally agree that the whole memoir craze comes out of our obsessions with ““real” people’s written life stories.” Movies seem to have more weight if they’re “based on a true story,” which always strikes me as so moronic, since any story, if it’s told well, will seem “true,” will become “true” for the reader/viewer. And I love the reality show link to this. What could be less real than a reality show, with the producers and camera and sound people hovering around a collection of lives, waiting for something to happen, provoking something with the situation itself and everything they throw into it, manipulating everything.

    Readers want “real” stories. Publishers are only too happy to deliver. Never mind that the “real” stories often require all kinds of embellishment, manipulation, and outright lies to serve the “truth” of the story, playing the role fiction has always played. Only better. ‘Cause it’s true, right? ‘Cause it really happened. As if what happens in fully-imagined fiction, an orchestration of events that creates meaning and deep emotional response, can’t be true. It’s as if we no longer trust or value imagination at all, even though every act of reading requires full engagement of the imagination, the only place where stories on the page really occur. And all stories, whether we call them fiction of nonfiction, if they’re good enough, “real” enough, become true. Just as all stories are based on invention. It seems that stories always and only becomes true and real for the reader (and the writer) in the untrustworthy imagination.

    • Asa Maria says:

      I so agree with you about Reality TV shows, Sam. Just because someone isn’t an actor doesn’t make it reality, especially when the shows are usually scripted and there’s some heavy editing involved.

      Mendelsohn thinks that the truth readers seek from novels are different than the truth they want from memoirs. “Novels, you might say, represent ‘a truth’ about life, whereas memoirs and nonfiction accounts represent ‘the truth’ about specific things that have happened.”

      I’m not sure I agree with this because “the truth” is always subjective because of the “untrustworthy imagination” that you mention (of both the reader and the author), whether it comes from a novel or nonfiction. So, I think “the truth” is in the eye of the beholder, kind of. What truth I get out of a book is different than someone else’s truth.

      • Brian O'Grady says:

        If readers are more interested in the different truths that fiction and nonfiction represent, why go we keep getting duped by fake memoirs? Have readers become more illiterate of the differences? Are we more forgiving of seemingly unlikely events? Are we actually more likely to believe an angel would appear in a nonfiction memoir? I don’t think any of these things is real far off base. A (slim) majority of Americans believes in angels.

        • Asa Maria says:

          I think we keep on getting duped by fake memoirs because it’s profitable to publish memoirs. Nonfiction sells better than fiction, or at least, it’s easier to break into the market. Publishers don’t have the time or the resources to check out how true the truth is. I think after the latest scandals,they probably have more motivation.

    • Terrance Owens says:

      Sam,

      I don’t think that the problem is that the imagination is untrustworthy. I think the problem is it is having trouble asserting itself.
      I was watching “The Dog Whisperer” and in every episode his treatment for every dog (Ok, I was watching a Dog Whisperer marathon) is to walk them. He always says “once their legs begin to move forward their mind can move forward” and I think that Wallace Stevens would love that and his famous quote comes to mind:

      “Perhaps the truth depends on a walk around the lake.”

      I think with today’s sedimentary lifestyle the imagination has no room to maneuver to stretch itself out. In Deep Image poetry the imagination is treated as a collective unconscious and with our lack of meaningful human connection we fall short of the ability to tap into that. Perhaps that hunger for “true” stories is really a desire to have some sort of concrete experience so that we can enter our imaginations again.

      On another note we are seeing story telling rise again in contemporary poetry and I think this could be for the same reason.

  • Tracy says:

    TMI? Yes and no…

    I have no difficulty turning off Reality TV.

    I understand the allure of watching a real life family or group when their lives are so much more messed up than mine. It’s reassuring to know I could be more screwed up than I am. But I don’t enjoy watching TV (too many commercials), and the allure of witnessing the day-to-day drama of other people’s lives doesn’t compensate for repeated broadcasts of “One Call! That’s All!” ads.

    “Are we as bloggers contributing to the “new anxiety” that Mendelsohn mentions?”

    The anxiety I feel about blogging isn’t as a recipient, but as a contributor. I feel like I must blog on my site to promote myself and my writing. And since no one reads my blogs, it’s a futile exercise. But I am hopeful one day someone will hit my site and be rewarded by a steady stream of entertaining trivia–not just a solitary “Welcome” post from 2001.

    However, instead of blogging, I’d rather be working on my next novel. Thus conflict and anxiety.

    And let’s face it, some anger… I wish publishers would take back the responsibility of marketing and promotion and let me wrestle with my creative genius. My C.G. is enough of a monster (actually, it’s more like an irritating mosquito I’m trying to teach “creativity” tricks to).

    Overall? Yes. TMI.

    – Tracy

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