Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Unreliable memoirs

I have mentioned before, briefly, that there is a huge row/discussion going on in the US about the alleged memoirs of James Frey. This has been covered ad nauseam by bloggers and the mainstream media, not to mention the mighty Oprah. Also as mentioned before, I have not attempted to keep abreast of this matter, either in the blog or off it, but the continuing echoes do serve to remind me of a number of consequential and inconsequential things. Here are a few of them, more or less in random order.

First, Clive James at least had the common sense to label his own slice of autobiography as Unreliable Memoirs.

Second, the official web site of James Lees Milne describes his book Another Self (1970) as 'superficially a volume of memoirs, in reality an autobiographical novel depicting his life in terms of his reactions to a series of hilarious incidents, some of them imaginary. (Its inspiration was a similar work by his friend Harold Nicolson - Some People [1927].) Another Self became (and remains) hugely popular and established JLM's literary reputation; it has rarely been out of print.'

Third, Frank McCourt, the author of Angela's Ashes, is said to have infuriated the people of Limerick by exaggerating the poverty of his childhood, the sadistic nature of priests, et cetera. And as for Dave Pelzer, well...

In short, it would be hard to find a well-known autobiography or set of memoirs which had not embroidered the facts more than somewhat. And since neither publishers nor reviewers are complete fools, it follows that they all know this perfectly well, even if readers don't. That being the case, publishers really ought to take the trouble to question an author -- particularly a previously unknown person -- before printing her 'memoirs', in order to find out whether what they have is a true memoir or an autobiographical novel. (Celebrities, e.g. recently retired politicians, are clearly a different kettle of fish, because what they say can so easily be checked against the public record.)

First-time writers -- e.g. a young man -- who produce a novel about e.g. a young man making his way in the world, also need to be questioned very closely about the extent to which their book is based on fact. From a libel point of view, it is particularly dangerous, for example, to write a novel about university life, if you have just left university, because even if you invent totally fictitious incidents, the likelihood is that someone is going to 'recognise' themselves and -- if you have made them a rapist -- take a dim view and resort to m'learned friends.

In short, I wholeheartedly recommend that fiction should be fiction. It should be a MADE-UP STORY. Invented from start to finish. True, there are some readers who will complain bitterly if you describe a character as taking the 9.15 train from Woking to Bristol, because, as they will undoubtedly tell you, the 9.15 service from Woking to Bristol was cancelled in 1943, and your book is set in 1947. But such lunatics can be ignored. Invent stuff. Motorbikes in real life do not have a reverse gear (I am assured); but in your book they can do, because it was fitted (you can say if asked) by an enthusiast in a shed at the bottom of his garden.

Make it up. Everything. Characters, places, events, attitudes, names of political parties, the lot. However hard you try, some people will 'identify' themselves, particularly if they know you. But if you have genuinely taken the trouble to make up everything, and can demonstrate that you have, with notes and so forth, then at least you are likely to steer clear of legal trouble. And, perhaps just as important, your conscience will be clear.


Anonymous said...

I'd say good fiction is the reinvention of truth. I suppose if the writer wanted protection he'd just cast a different version of himself in each role.

JodyTresidder said...

GOP wrote: "In short, it would be hard to find a well-known autobiography or set of memoirs which had not embroidered the facts more than somewhat. And since neither publishers nor reviewers are complete fools, it follows that they all know this perfectly well, even if readers don't."

And so it also follows that where there is an ambiguity in the nature of the beast, it is for the non foolish publishers to REFUSE to exploit the readers' misunderstanding.

Of the many, many outrages arising from the Frey mess, the notion that this ambiguity is something new really stinks.

The writer and serial memorist Ford Maddox Ford (1873-1939) used to delight in recalling whoppingly untrue events in print, recounting how he was found out - then riffing happily about the difference between memories and "impressions".

Frey, of course, would have us believe he stumbled into his disaster because he was a little unclear about the boundaries.

All a bit rich from someone who had previously boasted about how well read he was.

JodyTresidder said...

"Madox" not "maddox". Sorry.

a. m. burns said...

The shame of this circus is the lost trust between reader and writer. (Readers don't connect with publishing houses as such, so I'll leave them out this time.) A reader can no longer hold absolute trust that the fiction and non-fiction divisions of a bookstore are reliable either. Readers with verocious appetites know better; They've always been aware that there's more to book classification than simple fiction and non-fiction. Aunt Amelia, however, who reads two novels a year on her sun porch does not know who to believe anymore.

a m burns

Anonymous said...

I love this post. I was only saying the other day that Clive James at least had the sense to call his memoir 'unreliable'. It's only natural for people to embroider the truth a little.

Speaking of Australians (of which I am one), have you ever heard of the Ern Malley affair? Peter Carey based his book 'My Life as a Fake' on it.

In the 1990s a woman by the name of Helen Demidenko won the Australian/Vogel Literary Award (given annually to an unpublished writer under the age of 35). She claimed the novel, called 'The Hand that Signed the Paper' was based on her own family history, but it soon emerged that she'd made up her Ukrainian background and the events she described never happened. Oh yes, all hell broke loose. Even turns out her real name was Darville, not Demidenko.

a. m. burns said...

Wow. So I suppose Helen Darville is a dental hygenist now?

a m burns

BLogographos said...

All well and good, of course, but I'm still rather glad that you were never around to advise or influence the young Nabokov.

chapman said...

the reason it's hard for a writer to make up absolutely everything is that he runs the risk of losing interest.

you get a lot more emotionally involved writing a book that's full of personal meaning for you, than you are constructing a piece of fiction as a chore. and autobiography's the direct path to that involvement.

anyway c'mon. what happens to joyce, proust, wolfe, hemingway, lawrence...no point making a list, it's most every writer...i think we'd be left with a bunch of detective books--

but you're sure right about memoirs...starting with st. augustine's...

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