The Latest Memoir Controversy: Angel at the Fence

“Read all about it!,” the newsboys could be saying, if there were newsboys today. “Another memoir bites the dust!”  “Oprah decides to vet all future memoirists with truth serum!”  Of course, there is brand new president, wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and an economic meltdown to report on, too, but, hey, memoir dishes up conflict without loss of limb or job, so it makes for good reading and great dinner table conversation.

The latest scandal surrounds the canceled publication of a memoir that is more fiction than fact.  The author of the book, Herman Rosenblat, apparently wanted to inspire people with a love story about the Holocaust.  Instead, he has angered many who say that this kind of work exploits the Holocaust and encourages the deniers.  I won’t repeat details myself but here are two Huffington Post posts written by Hillel Italie. Be sure to read the comments.

Here is the second one also:

The issues raised by the handful of scandals, ever since the infamous James Frey case, boil down to this:  why don’t people just call their stories novels?  What advantage do they hope to gain by portraying the work as memoir?  And just how strict are the rules around “the truth”?  Obviously, people don’t remember dialogue word for word, yet many memoirs include long stretches of dialogue.

What role is the publishing industry playing in the development of these scandals?  Does the need to have a platform or “backstory” now mean more than good writing to editors and publishers?  People blame Oprah and agents and editors for being duped.  But why do writers create melodramatic stories, perfectly acceptable in fiction, yet try to pass them off as historical truth?  Has postmodernism cheapened the idea of truth and enlarged the idea of the self so much that writers cannot tell the difference?

My husband Stuart has an uncle who one time asked him question, “Is that truth or is it poetry?”  We adopted this question and often ask it in jest.  But it actually seems to be a relevant question today.

How much poetic license can a writer take and still call the work a memoir?  What do you think?

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About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
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3 Responses to The Latest Memoir Controversy: Angel at the Fence

  1. Memoir writers do know the difference between truth and fiction. Agents, editors, Oprah etc should not be held responsible for not checking every fact. I think everyone accepts that dialogue should be true to the person's voice without needing to recall entire conversations verbatim. Other details like colors of clothes, weather, foods eaten, etc. can be guessed at if not recalled, as long as they are consistent with what is likely to be true in the story. However, creating actual events that did not happen is fiction. In my own memoir, I got a few details wrong – models of cars, names of baseball teams, etc. – and my relatives let me know it, but my faulty memory didn't change the story.

  2. Shirley says:

    Linda,Thanks for this comment. I think your approach makes a great deal of sense and that most memoir writers strive for honesty and achieve it, even if their memories don't always confirm to those of friends and family or even the verifiable historical record. I still wonder why an old man would make up a story he must have known at some level would be challenged. Was it money and fame? Was he watching too many talk shows? He says he was just trying to make people happy. That can't have been his only motivation.Tell us about your memoir.

  3. shirleyhs says:

    Linda,Thanks for this comment. I think your approach makes a great deal of sense and that most memoir writers strive for honesty and achieve it, even if their memories don't always confirm to those of friends and family or even the verifiable historical record. I still wonder why an old man would make up a story he must have known at some level would be challenged. Was it money and fame? Was he watching too many talk shows? He says he was just trying to make people happy. That can't have been his only motivation.Tell us about your memoir.

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