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The Memoir Lives

Here is a great passage from a article written by Laura Miller about Ben Yagoda’s new book, Memoir: A History:

As Yagoda entertainingly demonstrates, none of the criticisms and debates about today’s memoirs are unprecedented. From the very beginning (if by the beginning you mean the “Confessions” of St. Augustine and “The Life of Benvenuto Cellini,” written in the 5th and 16th centuries, respectively), autobiography has been subject to attacks on its appropriateness and veracity. There was no blogosphere to accuse Cellini of being way too self-absorbed, or to fact-check the full extent of St. Augustine’s chastity, however, and by now their books are wrapped in the distinguished mantle of history. If you think that today’s memoirs are the last word in TMI, then consider the case of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the most influential autobiographer of all time, who treated his shocked 18th-century readers to descriptions of his masturbatory practices and professions of his desire to be sexually dominated by “an imperious woman.”

This next passage illustrates how I feel about memoir.

“All autobiographies are lies,” said George Bernard Shaw, and Yagoda concurs, to a degree. Pointing out that most of us can’t recall the exact words of conversations we had yesterday, let alone those of many years past, he writes, “all memoirs that contain dialogue — which is to say all recent and current memoirs — are inaccurate.” Nevertheless, this does not make them utterly false. Ideally, “the dialogue in a memoir is the author’s best-faith representation of what the people who were present could have/would have/might have said.” Complicating the matter is the growing body of evidence that even when people are trying their damnedest to recount the precise details of some recent experience — when they’re, say, testifying under oath in court — they get a lot of stuff wrong, often in a way that suits their own desires and needs. Unreliable and revisionist, memory, as Yagoda puts it, “is itself a creative writer.”

This is so true, and it’s why I defended James Frey in the beginning (although it was difficult to defend him once we knew just how much he had fabricated in his best selling memoir, A Million Little Pieces. When I began my own memoir (Paris On Less Than $10,000 a Day), I found myself terrified to invent anything. I thought every word of a memoir had to be true, down to what a particular person was wearing on a particular night. I worried that if I wrote that Susie had Comme des Garçons shoes on the night we went to the Bains Douches and it turned out she’d given them away to her cousin Sally by then, she’d sue me for libel. (How absurd!) It took many conversations with published writers to convince me that it was okay to make things up. Dialogue, weather, etc. One friend told me that when she teaches memoir classes, she tells her students, “If it could have been true, then it’s okay to write it. If you know for sure it isn’t true, then it’s not.” I think that’s a great gauge for writing memoir.

Here’s a link to the whole Salon story. And here’s a link to the book.

2 comments to The Memoir Lives

  • I heard Yagoda interviewed by On the Media on NPR recently and he spoke about the fact that the decision between fiction and non-fiction is a relatively recent one. Nowhere is that more evident than in the genre of memoir. He points out that Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, recognized as the first novel in English, was based on the actual experiences of Scottish castaway Alexander Selkirk, and was believed to be a "true" story by most of Defoe's readers. Memoir is always walking a fine line between entertaining and providing a factual account.

  • Thanks for this comment, Biff. I'd love to read Yagoda's book, but haven't gotten around to it yet. Something I found interesting – when I turned chapters of my memoir into a writing professor in my MFA program as fiction, she didn't like them at all. When I told her they were actually memoir, she said, "Oh! Then they're great!" In her mind, as fiction they had to follow all the rules of fiction (like be believable), but as memoir, anything goes.