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Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Memoir: Fact or Fiction?

     How many people take themselves seriously enough, or think they are important or interesting enough, to write a memoir? (An autobiography is a full account of the author's life while a memoir preents just a slice of it. EG: "How I Climbed Mr. Everest" or "My Role in the Brinks Robbery," or "How I lost 600 Pounds Eating Donuts and Snicker Bars.") Judging from bookstore inventories, a lot of people. One would be hard pressed to name a well-known politician, entertainment figure, television host, professional athelete or writer who has not written (or had ghost-written) a memoir.

     Because so many memoirs are ghost-written, especially books "authored" by celebrities, the term "author," in the context of this genre, is rather ambiguious. Moreover, when reading a memoir, one can never be sure if the book in hand is fiction, nonfiction, or a blend of fact and fantasy. In recent years several best-selling memoirs have turned out to be, at their core, fiction, and therefore fakes. Examples include memoirs written in the subgenres of Holocaust, crime, addiction, sports, coming of age, and love story. Since 1996, three major Holocaust memoirs have been shown to be heavily fictitious.

     Greg Mortenson's 2996 memoir (co-authored with David Oliver Relinhis), called "Three Cups of Tea," a supposedly true story of how Mortenson's non-profit institute established more than 170 schools for girls in Pakistan, sold more than three million copies worldwide. In April 2011, CBS's "60-Minutes" reported that the memoir was a fabrication and that Mortenson had used his charitable organization as a "private ATM machine."

     On April 21, 2011, radio talk show host Steve Kelly (KSPI Palm Springs, California) asked me why authors of fake memoirs just don't present their stories as works of fiction to avoid the shame of being exposed. My answer: Many memorists want the freedom to create and take advantage of the power of nonfiction. Readers like true stories, but not all true stories are interesting. This is where fiction--and literary fraud--enters the picture and why so many book buyers now question the integrity of the genre.

     The following quotes from professional writers pertain to the genre in general:

A memoir is how one remembers one's own life, while an autobiography is history, requiring research, dates, facts double-checked.
Gore Vidal

Someone said that writing a memoir is like getting re-acquainted with the person you were a long time ago.
Tony Hillerman

It seems to me there are people who can write their memoirs with a reasonable amount of honesty, and there are people who simply cannot take themselves seriously enough.
Raymond Chandler

Perhaps...all memorists lie. We alter the truth on paper so as to alter it in fact. We lie about our past and invent surrogate memories the better to make sense of our lives and live the life we know was truly ours. We write about our life, not to see it as it was, but to see it as we wish others might see it, so we may borrow their gaze and begin to see our lives through their eyes, not ours. [Perhaps this is why readers don't trust memoirs.]
Andre Aciman

A memoir must be about you and something--and that something should usually be your relationship to something intrinsically interesting and bigger than you.
Stephan Koch

The memories of the mentally ill are full of confused action, failed promise, and grinding pain; they do not tend to make good narratives.
Dr. Alice W. Flaherty

Books like Christina Crawford's "Mommy Dearest" and the late Gary Crosby's "Going My Own Way" offered sensational, firsthand accounts into the family lives of Joan Crawford and Bing Crosby, proving that even in the [film] industry's Golden Age, Hollywood idols did not make top-notch parents. Nor most likely do their own children, comfortable performing literary blindsides on their star parents in pursuit of their own 15 minutes of fame. [The celebrity offspring hatchet-job has become a staple in the genre.] It's a vicious cycle.
Andrew Breibart and Mark Ebner

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