“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?