"Better because it's true"

Friday July 04, 2008 @ 10:48 AM (UTC)

A few months ago, I spent a lot of time hanging around big-box bookstores. I visited the local Borders and B&N daily in hopes of surprising my first published work on its first shelved day. The local Borders was more convivial and boasted more clearance racks of stationery, so I lingered there longer and noticed that there were two major genera of employees. One day, every counter would be occupied by listless, asymmetrically-coiffed young men with pendant chins; the next, by cheery middle-aged women with long hair and an ineffable air of library.

It was one of these latter beings, friendly though they seemed, that shocked and distressed me. Standing in line one day, I listened to the woman at the counter chatting about books with the soccer mom before her with such loquacity that it gave you hope for the brick ‘n’ mortar bookshop. The customer, recognizing a font of literary enthusiasm when she saw it, asked for recommendations: light, funny reading.

The bookseller immediately launched into an elevator-pitch for a book she’d just read about an eccentric family, á la Royal Tenenbaums. As the customer obligingly chuckled, she finished, “I simply loved it, and it’s a memoir, so it’s better because it’s true!”

Gentle reader, I gaped. Perhaps this underlying value statement is more than evident given the publishing world’s memoir obsession; perhaps you even agree with it on some fundamental level. But for this fictionist, the implicit statement that the same work would be a “good” novel and a “great” memoir was chilling.

Is this true? And if so, why? There may be greater artistry involved in making a truly compelling narrative without breaking the bounds of personal history. But surely that lack of inventive liberty is balanced by the artistry necessary to create such a narrative out of whole cloth. Why is the book not its own achievement, to be judged on its own merits, on the world between its pages?

Is the act of reading different if the reader believes the narrative to be reported fact? If the reader were not told until the end whether the book were memoir or novel, would her “star-rating” change upon hearing? And if so, what does that mean for our enjoyment of books – that we use them as artifacts, not just art; that we are unduly influenced by the biography of the author? Or does it simply mean we expect less of memoir?

There are plenty of issues raised, many questions around the primacy of memoir in today’s writing market. Many of them, I hold, would benefit from the attention of fictionists as well as of nonfictionists. But I will stop this ramble here for now, and ask: do you agree with the Borders lady, reader? Is a satisfying, rollicking good read better if it’s true?


If you’re into any theory at all, you might be interested in (or knowledgeable about) Anis Bawarshi’s work on genre and uptake. I can’t remember the name of the article I read last semester that talked about fiction, memoirs, and one of the funny genres in between (whose name escapes me) in which the author takes a lot of people’s stories and weaves them together, fictionalizing that all of the pertinent events happened to the same person. Okay, Bawarshi doesn’t go into the American fascination with memoirs and their shock and horror when these in-between genres turn out to be “lies” to them… but it had our class thinking about it. For me, writing nonfiction is a hell of a lot easier than fiction. Good fiction is difficult and beautiful. And some nonfiction is just masturbatory. Amen.

She’s obviously of the same ilk as those in the art world who scoff at realism. I’ve long suspected that it’s a skewed mindset deviously promoted by so-called “artists” who don’t possess the talent necessary to paint accurate depictions of life. Apparently the conspiracy also includes authors too unimaginative to write stories that didn’t happen!

If fiction were inferior would there be so many people hungrily devouring it daily in an attempt to escape reality? And if that weren’t proof enough, the relative sizes of the fiction vs. nonfiction areas of any bookstore should give testament to which sort of writing the public prefers!

To be honest, Emily, I fear theory. Not that I don’t sometimes get a lot out of it; “Critical Theory” gave me just enough understanding to live in fear. I know it’s unfair, as I like analyzing literature, and I really should get the heck over it.

How derived is this Bawarshi, before I add it to my ‘to-read’ shelf? Will a really dusty knowledge of Eagleton and the boys suffice me?

You raise an interesting point:
If fiction were inferior would there be so many people hungrily devouring it daily in an attempt to escape reality? And if that weren’t proof enough, the relative sizes of the fiction vs. nonfiction areas of any bookstore should give testament to which sort of writing the public prefers!

Well, actually, I misspeak – these are two points. As to the second, I’m not so sure. the fiction versus nonfiction sections represent the amount of historical success the bookstore chooses to commemorate, and nonfiction includes many, many separate sections if we’re talking generally, rather than just about memoir. I should look up some stats to confirm my impression that memoir currently sells more copies than, at least, literary novel.

But as to the first question: you’ve brought up the reader’s motive, which is one of the next points in the topic (which I’ve chosen to tag ‘memoir versus novel cage match’) I mean to address. Is the quality of a book, or of a class of books, partly in the motives of the readers who read them? Or only if those motives are answered? What of the author’s motive?

And the author’s motive affects your first paragraph. To assume memoirists are failed novelists requires that the motives be similar. Say, to tell a story people will read, to sell a book, what have you. But it seems to me that many memoirists are motivated to write by the things they’ve experienced, or in another specifically non-fiction vein of inspiration.

I’ll return to some of this later. I’m trying to write small, coherent blog posts these days instead of giant ramblefests ;)

Well, you can console yourself with the fact that plays are also ‘nonfiction’ :p

In my book collection, there is a separate area for poetry, and plays are mixed willy-nilly with fiction. I’m a rebel!

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