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Faux Memoirs

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message 1: by MM (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:27PM) (new)

MM (localwest) | 5 comments So, I have attempted to read both James Frey's A Million Little Pieces and Augusten Burroughs' Dry - I loathed them both and could not finish either of them (thankfully I did not actually pay for them ... if I had I would have forced myself to finish them).

Gay Talese told Larry King that Frey originally tried to have his book published as fiction. Apparently, when that didn't work he marketed it as a memoir and it "sold like hotcakes," to borrow a phrase. I think this is a sad trend, why is poor writing acceptable in the memoir form? Why do we, as readers and book buyers, continue to purchase fake memoirs? There's Burroughs, Frey, and I've heard the Dave Eggers' Heart Breaking Work was a fake memoir also (haven't attempted this one yet).

Side note about memoirs: why do author's insult my intelligence by pretending to recall everything that EVER happened in the entire span of their lives? I recently read Danielly Traig's memoir (it was bad) and she would quote things her parents said to her as an infant as though she remembered these events verbatim - it was a blatant attempt to make her and her family seem quirky, but it was ridiculous. Am I just not a memoir person? Am I wrong to loathe?


message 2: by Erica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Erica Poole | 65 comments Hm, there is a thread going on under Oprah's Book Club in this group about Frey and the whole situation.

Personally, I haven't read either of those books, not a big fan of memoirs and autobiography. I am always a little amazed that someone has the guts to put out a book about themselves and expects people to pay to read it. Not talking about major figures in society or history, just the regular average joe. Not to say that these stories don't have some value... I just couldn't do it. I played with the idea of doing a memoir at some point (in my bestselling author fantasies), but I would DEFINITELY publish it as fiction. That way I could change names, and say things how I want to, and not worry about having to prove anything!

So what does knowing that some things have been altered, embellished or what have you, do to your perception of the book after the fact? I ask as someone who as I said, doesn't read biographies and memoirs. Do the 'lessons' or insights from the book lose their value to the reader?


message 3: by Jason (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Jason (gireesh42) This is an interesting issue you've raised. I have not read Frey or Burroughs, though I have subjected myself to Eggers. I read an interesting creative non-fiction piece in which the author discusses the subtleties of memoir vs. non-fiction vs. fiction. From what I recall, she praised memoir exactly for one of the issues you raised--the author's freedom to "quote" people from their past and generally filter everything through their personal lens and memory. I think it's important to maintain the distinction between memoir and non-fiction and biography, as difficult as it may be. Personally, I have no problem with people embellishing their own lives; I'm not sure my own memories are not corrupted.

Still, I loathe Eggers.

Contemplating another of Michelle's points: I don't think labelling something a memoir is necessarily a tactic for disguising bad writing, though that does play a part. It seems to me that the public is more keen on reading what they can delude themselves into thinking is "non-fiction." Light entertainment becomes less embarrasing when one can call it a true story. I think this is a general trend, the slow deterioration of fiction.

But Michelle, just out of curiosity, is bad writing in memoir form really more disagreeable to you than just plain bad writing, of which there is even more?


message 4: by Erica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Erica Poole | 65 comments Great point Jason, unfortunately I do agree that people do things to make what they are reading more acceptable to the 'literati'. I myself have been guilty of it, but I am over that now! Reading is great, no matter what it is, and if I want to read fluff, then so be it! But that is not to say that I do not read 'good books'. I do. Just like I enjoy some Waffle House now and again just as much as I do dinner at a five star restaurant!

But I really am curious as to how many people would say in finding out that something billed more as a true story, would feel that the story wasn't as good, or the value of the book overall was diminished once it was acknowledged to be less than 100% true.


message 5: by Tara (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Tara (tara_n) | 66 comments I haven't read the Frey book, but I did read Michael J. Fox's memoirs "Lucky Man". He focused on when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's and how that diagnosis affected everything and everyone else around him. I thought it was a good memoir and it had a lot of heart. I also read "Tales from the Bed" by Jennifer Estess about her diagnosis of ALS and downward spiral. I appreciate those memoirs. I didn't feel like I was being talked down to or lied to or insulted. It was almost like a conversation rather than a book.

So, I don't think I have ever truly been able to figure out what distinguishes memoir from autobiography. Is the memoir just about a specific moment in your life (like a Parkinson's diagnosis) and autobiography is your entire life from the date of birth until whenever? Hmm, maybe I just figured it out on my own. I'm having a "wheel's spinning but the hamster's dead" kind of day, sorry.


message 6: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Lena Personally, I think the line between memoir and fiction is thinner than most people generally acknowledge. Memory is an imperfect instrument in the best of situations, so a memoirist is always limited by the fact that the very act of remembering an event causes it to change. Still, I think there’s a big difference between, say, re-creating the details of conversation that happened 20 years ago and blatantly lying about what happened. I think if a book is billed as true, it should stick as close to the truth as our flawed memories allow.

What I’m curious about is the opposite issue—how many readers of fiction seem to assume that novels are just thinly veiled accounts of actual events. Barbara Kingsolver has written about having to explain to many people that she gave birth to her eldest daughter the old-fashioned way, and did not find her abandoned in the back seat of a car in Oklahoma like her character in The Beantrees did. When my own novel was published, I was amazed at how many people assumed my tale of a woman who gets involved with a cult-like spiritual group was really my own. Whenever I clarified the matter, I was continually surprised at how many people I met were just as, if not more interested in what actually happened to me than the fictional story I had carefully crafted to highlight those issues that my own experiences were too messy to convey well.

I think maybe one reason memoir is giving fiction such a run for its money is that a story that supposedly actually happened can be more compelling because it should have suspension of disbelief already built into it, whereas fiction has to work harder to create a real-enough world to pull people in. Enough memoirists seem to have abused that advantage, however, that may not be the case much longer.


message 7: by Summer Rae (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Summer Rae Garcia | 45 comments I have read all of Augusten Burroughs and I love him (though I am kinda sick of him)I haven't read Frey, but I probably will eventually. I really don't understand the big deal of whether their memoirs are true or not. I don't care. It is only a category on a bookshelf. If I enjoy it I feel like they did fine by me. Maybe that is a selfish way to look at it, but Oprah's feelings really don't register on my radar. Tell me a story, that is all I want.


message 8: by Erica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:28PM) (new)

Erica Poole | 65 comments Tara -"I'm having a "wheel's spinning but the hamster's dead" kind of day, sorry."

That is HILARIOUS! I laughed out loud. Thanks.

Srae, I am right there with ya babe!


message 9: by Tara (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:29PM) (new)

Tara (tara_n) | 66 comments Erica -- I have a whole supply of comments like those and was debating whether I should say "Today, I'm just not the sharpest knife in the drawer", OR "Obviously, I'm not the brightest star in the sky right now" OR " The brightest color in the crayon box? Yeah, not me today." but I decided to go with "the wheel's spinning but the hamster's dead". That's my favorite! I'm glad it made you laugh! :)

About Lena's comment on readers believing that a work of fiction is "just thinly veiled accounts of actual events" -- that is interesting. I guess I hadn't really thought about it, but it makes complete sense. I think there's a segment of the population that truly believes that the fiction they read (or see on TV like CSI, The Practice) is more than fiction, that there is some truth or reality there, rather than it's just a part of the writer's imagination or creativity.

I watch CSI, and I work in the court system, and I know that our CSI lab is NOTHING like the CSI lab that Gil Grissom works at in Las Vegas. Now, I don't know if the real Las Vegas crime lab is like that, but I do know that the show is not an accurate portrayal of what occurs in our crime lab (we just don't have the staff to do half of what Grissom and the gang do), yet there are jurors who will ask questions of the witnesses (we have this thing now where jurors can ask questions but first the questions have to be written down and reviewed by the Judge, DDA and defense counsel to ensure that certain rules aren't being broken blah blah blah), especially lab techs, why they didn't swab the entire car for DNA with black lights and spritz bottles and cotton swabs, and how come they weren't able to determine the defendant's BAC by taking the straw he sipped his drink through, and my favorite "well, did you look for lice on the body of the victim and then on the suspects, cause the lice would have sealed up the case for you". It's kind of funny, but it's also kind of sad. People are coming into court with this idea that courtroom procedures are just like what they see on The Practice, Boston Legal and Ally McBeal. (If court was really ever that entertaining, I wouldn't spend so much of my work day on Good Reads; I'd rather do this than sit through trial.) So, it makes perfect sense to me that a reader might ask an author if what happened in the book was really just a retelling of an event that occurred with the author.


message 10: by Recynd (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:29PM) (new)

Recynd I just read a book dealing with this subject: "Lying: a Metaphorical Memoir", by...someone. A woman (that's helpful, I know). Anyway, it deals with how we remember events, and how those memories, whether accurate or not, shape our current reality. I could so relate...I am horrible with details; my memories are all feeling-based, which make them very hard to articulate, but the author managed to do it!

Anyway, it's worth a peek.


message 11: by Erica (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:30PM) (new)

Erica Poole | 65 comments Sounds like something to check out. Ironically, I can figure out when a memory of mine occurred fairly accurately because I can almost always remember EXACTLY what I was wearing at the time. I mean from age 4 I can pinpoint this specific memory because I knew I was wearing a new purple and white striped Pooh bear shirt, with ruffle sleeves, purple shorts, and knee high purple socks. I COULD tell you the rest, down to the clip in my hair, but I won't torture you so. I don't know why that is, maybe I am obsessed with clothes. But it works for me! I know, I am a freak!


message 12: by Tara (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:30PM) (new)

Tara (tara_n) | 66 comments Recynd -- I may have to check out that book. I have a hard time distinguishing if my early memories are REALLY my memories or if they are memories that have been imprinted in my mind because I've heard the story so many times from my parents and grandparents.


message 13: by Lena (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:31PM) (new)

Lena I just finished reading a very interesting essay by Joel Agee on this topic--it's in this month's Harper's. Having learned in writing his own memoir how quickly writing about a memory can change that memory, he felt compelled to open his memoir with a disclaimer that "Everything in this book is true, but not everything is precisely factual."

I think he's being more honest than many with that statement. He goes on to consider the difference between an outright liar and an an artist who creates in service to the truth. Sticky distinction, but fascinating, I think.


message 14: by Misty (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:31PM) (new)

Misty I remember a class in my undergrad studies where we studied perception; if I remember correctly (ha...there goes that perception thing again), our minds have filters/flood gates that allow us to remember things in certain ways. Any experts out there? I would greatly appreciate a refresher!
- Misty


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