On Truth and the Lie

The whole truth-in-memoir thing has apparently jumped the shark. I’m behind the times trying to get in on this, but this sunday’s Times had a profile of David Sedaris which covered his run-in with the memoir police. A reporter for the New Republic published a piece attempting to out Sedaris for having lied about various matters in his essays. Sedaris’ reply to his critic in the times article was pretty amusing:

[Sedaris] also said that some details in his essays are obviously fictionalized. “Naked,” for instance, has a story “where my mother hits a cat with her car, and the cat dies, and the cat comes back to life and says, ‘You killed me,’ ” he said. Speaking of Mr. Heard, he added, “That’s what he was fact-checking, that book.”

My concern isn’t with Sedaris in particular. I enjoy his work, and found his interview yesterday on Fresh Air to be entertaining. Still he seems to be getting a bit less funny every time out, whether it is the result of success and domesticity or of my being too familiar with his style. Anyhow, as he points out succintly in the above quote, he is a ridiculous as a target of fact-checking. Nonetheless, one critic in the times remarks in the Times piece ““There’s a whole section in every bookstore for what a guy like David Sedaris does: it’s called the fiction section.”

Is it just me, or is this absurd and insulting to readers? And does it not reflect an absurd understanding of “truth?” And, for that matter, of “fiction?”

As an eighteenth-century literature scholar, I find the fuss over the “truth” of memoirs to be silly and wrongheaded. The entire modern genre of the novel emerged out of faked memoirs; the rationale was that there was more “truth” in a (fictional) representation that attempted to be true to life than in wilder, supernatural romance fiction. In the eighteenth century, one could argue, there was sometimes more truth in fictional fake memoirs than in real ones, as the fictional memoirists had more investment in conveying a sense of the true than did real memoirists, who had to avoid implicating themselves too deeply in crime and sin, and who had a motive to make themselves look good.

Still, the eighteenth century also saw the invention of the modern memoir, usually dated to Rousseau’s Confessions, a wonderful book that, in addition to lacerating self-incrimination may also contain much invention and/or paranoid self-delusion.

I am in the process of editing an eighteenth-century memoir that has never been published before. I hope and believe that it is “true,” at least in the senses of being based on an actual life, and of conveying a convincing and meaningful sense of the author’s experience of the world. But, like the debate over whether or not the great slave -narrative writer Olaudah Equiano was really born in Africa, I also believe that fudging some facts does not invalidate the greater truth of the memoir. Although I would not extend this argument to validate the recently exposed fake gang-life memoir, I did find Scott Simon’s declaration on Weekend Edition that, as a novelist, he knows that there is much more to writing a novel than there is to writing a fake memoir to be pompous, grating, and historically ill-informed.

In the end, I am convinced by Borges’ great story “Funes the Memorious.” Any attempt to convey a complete truth of memory would be impossible. And, of course, any redaction of the truth, even if only for purposes of communication is to some degree compromised, distorted and untrue. Nonetheless, it is possible to write from memory with the intent to convey the truth of one’s experience. I don’t think that truth can be measured by a fact checker. The quality of the overall reading experience ultimately matters more than sum of the “truth” of the details.


3 responses to “On Truth and the Lie

  1. The Learned Bull makes many fine points in this disquisition. I would add, as someone who has written many a fact-checked piece, that the process of fact-checking is mostly ridiculous. For example, you are asked to provide your notes, so they can “check” them. Well, what is to prevent me from creating a wonderful interview, say with Santa Klaus and write it down and hand it in? Notes prove nothing. And once the fact-checker calls a source that has been quoted, that source can deny, falsely, what he said, or agree to things that never happened. Having said all of that however, I must take acception to the Bull’s oh-so contemporary view that there is no truth and that everything is merely a point of view. It seems to me the nonfiction writer has as his goal being accurate and telling it like it is. If a writer is faithful to this goal, no matter his biases, oversights and shortcomings as an observer of events, then he will create a work of nonfiction, one that may be disputed or corrected by others, but neverthless occupying a different field than the writer of fiction. If Sedaris, a person whose works I have yet to enjoy, slips bits of fakery into a mostly true narrative then he is a fiction writer, because he has revealed that he has no interest in trying to be truthful. As for old JJRousseau, those were innocent times and genres were fungible. But I caution that there is a great gulf between “invention” (vide the Bull’s essay) and “paranoid self-delusion.” Invention is the province of the novelist. Paranoid self-delusion, if rendered honestly, the province of the memoir. I remain, yr mst hmble svt … Sir Edward Lewine, Bart. KVC, KT, OBE, RA, GCVO

  2. Thanks for straightening me out! I agree that the writer should have the GOAL of “being accurate and telling like it is.” I just don’t think that getting things somewhat wrong invalidates a writer’s claim to have been striving, even with some success, toward that goal. So, Rousseau’s paranoid self-delusion may produce a failure to record the facts, but in some sense it is truer to his experience. Of course I don’t really care about l’affaire James Frey and I’m mostly being a show-offy academic smartass.

  3. Uh … yeah … I was saying the same thing, Mr. B. The difference between nonfiction and fiction isn’t so much accuracy, whatever that means, but intention. A nonfiction writer is trying to be factual. He may fail. But if his failures are honest then he is writing nonfiction. The fiction writer, by contrast, has no need of such compass.

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