Thursday, March 06, 2008

The Memoir Trap

It's frustrating enough being a writer with pretensions toward big-time aspirations without having to read about the recent spate of memoirs shown to be fraudulent, including, most recently, Margaret Seltzer's Love and Consequences, which gives grim but apparently false detail about growing up as a foster child and gang member in South-Central Los Angeles.

So, what's going on here? It seems like the first problem is with the publishing industry itself. There is something awry about a culture so awash in memoir, that so privileges first-person accounts over verifiable non-fiction. In their quest for the next James Frey (oops) publishers have come to privilege memoir over almost every other genre. What seems quite clear is that many of these books have relied almost wholly on their first-person vantage point for their appeal, as it seems evident that many of them would not have passed muster as fiction, and yet once we discover that they also do not work as nonfiction, what do we have? (And yes, I realize that Bleeding Red shared at least some of the attributes of memoir, but even a cursory reading indicates that it was something a bit different.)

Writing good nonfiction is hard work. The craft is every bit as difficult as writing fiction with the added burden of owing fealty to evidence. Perhaps my favorite historian, C. Vann Woodward, wrote in his preface to the first edition of The Strange Career of Jim Crow, "The twilight zone that lies between living memory and written history is one of the favorite breeding places of mythology." Would that more publishers would keep this wisdom in mind the next time they think they have struck it rich with the next groundbreaking memoir.

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