I ran across and interesting trend in American publishing reading Jumping for that Elusive Truth by Christian Bauman discussing how publishers are encouraging young novelists to rewrite their often autobiographical first novels as memoirs. They sell better if people think of them as non-fiction. Not just a little bit better – bestseller better. Here Bauman relates the experience of two fiction writers, Anthony Swofford and James Frey, who were getting nowhere trying to sell their work as fiction.

An editor at Scribner posed the memoir question to struggling fiction writer Swofford. The former Marine went back to the drawing board and out came Jarhead. Frey, whod actually finished a novel, found himself in similar straits and took similar advice: add the prefix non to the word fiction and voila, A Million Little Pieces.

It is hard to argue with the results of their decisions. Mr. Swoffords writing went from literary fiction that no pre-9/11 publisher would touch to war memoir that landed on the cover of The New York Times Book Review (just for starters). Mr. Freys passionate, idiosyncratic, difficult-to-get-past-the-marketing-people novel became an overcome-and-survive memoir that has had not one but now two lives on the bestseller lists.

But there is a problem.

Both of these authors have experienced difficulties of late. There have been grumblings from family members of some who populate the pages of Jarhead about misrepresentation. In addition, The New York Times reports that the screenwriter who turned Mr. Swoffords memoir into a movie may have lifted scenes from Joel Turnipseeds book Baghdad Express. Mr. Freys difficulties, brought to light by TheSmokingGun.com and then an AP wire story this week, seem even deeperhe wildly exaggerated or even invented many of the pivotal moments of A Million Little Pieces and its sequel. This wouldnt be a problem except for the fact that the book is supposed to be, you know, true.

The opposite is happening too. Some authors, including Mr. Bauman, have been asked to turn their novels into memoirs and didn’t feel they could. Mr Bauman was asked to turn his The Ice Beneath You into a memoir but demurred. Similarly, Colleen Mondor wrote a novel with a working title of Flying Cold about her experiences with flying in Alaska. She too was asked to consider doing a memoir and she tells why she found that impossible here. An excerpt:

So yeah, people think my book is great, but they want it to be something else. They want me to claim that all those conversations in the book that I have fabricated, twisted on their heads and turned upside down are true. They want me to swear that we felt a certain way about a certain incident on a certain day. They want me to tell you that what I think someone felt was really want that guy was feeling when even the guy whose story I stole for that literary moment can’t remember what he felt that day anymore. It might be true – who knows. But when I wrote this book I didn’t intend for it to be considered truth, I wasn’t looking for truth. I just wanted to tell an honest story and sometimes that contains a true moment, but a true story – no. I can’t swear to that and I can’t write that.

So, here I sit with this book I wrote.

To me there is great irony in this situation. One of the greatest novels I have ever read is just such a ‘autobiographical’ first novel. Its Australian and therefore is probably less well known than it would have been had it had been British or American. Nonetheless, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts is an autobiographical novel that is nothing less than stunning. Here it’s author addresses the exact question of fiction versus non-fiction in an interview with a Mumbai journalist Murali K. Mennon (you have to click ‘Interviews’ and ‘Indian Express’ to see the interview.)

When did the idea of an autobiography, with the city both as a character and as a backdrop, first strike you?

A. With respect, Shantaram is not an autobiography, its a novel. If the book reads like an autobiography, I take that as a very high compliment, because I structured the created narrative to read like fiction but feel like fact. I wanted the novel to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it had the authentic feel of fact.
That being said, the answer to your question is that I made the decision to include myself in my own work while I was on a smuggling run to Africa. I sat at a table in my favorite dive in Kinshasa, in what was then the nation of Zaire, and shared a drinking session with five other men who were all in the city as smugglers, mercenaries, and law-breakers. We took turns to tell each other our stories. When the other men voted my story the most interesting, I made the decision to stop writing from the invisible, omniscient authors perspective, and to include myself in my work.

Colleen Mondor gets at the core of the problem when she says: “…people think my book is great, but they want it to be something else.” Of course they do. We all want every good story to be literally true. Roberts precisely identifies the first half of the solution: the author has to structure the narrative “to have the page-turning drive of a work of fiction but to be informed by such a powerful stream of real experience that it has the authentic feel of fact.” The other half is to recognize that if marketing realities require that publishers indulge the public’s appetite for non fiction then they should shoulder their share of the marketing burden and cast such works as non fiction and then acknowledge in a prominent, but not entirely overlookable, place exactly what is and is not literally true in the work. After all, we are talking about a hybrid form here – the autobiographical novel has been around for a long time. And it is a legitimate form that evidently needs a new name to sell it.
I have a modest suggestion. French is often a useful language to make the English speaking public think they are getting something superior. A roman a clef is a novel in which actual events are given a superficial fictional cover, but with a ‘clef’ or ‘key,’ can be read as a more or less faithful account of true events. We already have ‘memoir’, a good French word anglicized by removing the final ‘e’ from memoire, so why not call this form something like memoir a coeur (Memoir of the heart – if I have my French right here). Whatever – the point is to sell the side that’s true. I have no time for the postmodern notion that there is no ‘truth’ – only narratives – of if it feels emotionally true, it is true, schools of thought. If the core of a work is untrue, then there is little sense in trying to spin it otherwise, but where a substantial portion of the work in literally true it seems acceptable to me to recognize the commercial reality of the day and emphasize the true part and downplay the fictional part. I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces, but I have read the the smokinggun expose and I must say that it might be hard to market Frey’s account as non-fiction. It seems a case of gross exaggeration. Yet, Frey claims that he and his publishers never considered any language to hedge the claim that his story was nonfiction. My take is that the publisher has a responsibility to do some fact checking and then come up with a defensible disclaimer. Disclaimers and the like are not new in the publishing business. In the case of Flying Cold Colleen Mondor tells us that the flying parts have been carefully checked and rechecked and their accuracy established. Her publisher should get to work and come up with language something like this: ‘The accounts of flying are absolutely factual, the words and inner feelings of the character’s are structured to represent the more generalized truths about the human dilemmas that arise when people are required by their jobs to continually undertake highly dangerous work. Or whatever the case may be, put in such away so as not to disillusion those who prefer to think of their cars as ‘pre-owned’.

Addendum: I was talking to my sister yesterday about this post and she called my attention to a case of what appears to be outright fraud – the case of JT Leroy reported here. An excerpt:

Earlier today, it was revealed that ambiguous literary wunderkind JT Leroy, who claims to be an AIDS-stricken truck-stop hooker turned literary star, was really a fabrication of Laura Albert and Geoffrey Knoop and played, in public, by Knoop’s half-sister Savannah.

I would add that even though Frey’s account may contain way too much fiction to be ever be credibly presented as a ‘true story’, it is not an outright fraud. His book has evidently inspired people and helped them, which is not a bad thing at all. And he has reformed himself – evidently from a person less bad than he would have us believe into a person less good than he would like us to think.

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