Thursday, February 28, 2008

Memoir vs. Novel

People still ask me what memoir really is. Despite everyone loving to read memoirs recently, no one seems to be able to nail down the particulars of what it is they’re consuming. Then you go and add A Million Little Pieces and its “sequel” to the mix and you’ve got a big bag of WTF? So today I'm answering questions.

Memoir’s basically fiction, right?

No. Memoirs are not fiction. They are about real people and the things that actually happened in that person’s life.

But then why does it read like a novel?

In memoir the author employs all the devices and methods of a fiction writer. They deal in tone and selective description. The authors get into artistic imaginings of physical things. In factual writing an artistic description of how the wind sounded or the way the smoke swirled upward would never be printed, but memoir allows for such artistic flourishes. They build the story of the life around a theme, leaving out large parts of their lives that have nothing to do with the theme and focusing in on events that do.

The best example of theme in memoir that I know is Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, where author Nick Flynn builds the memoir around the theme of homelessness. This means that he focuses on his experience working in homeless shelters and his father’s experience being homeless. Because the father-son relationship is viewed through this lens some aspects of his life come into sharper focus and some fade out. When asked about his relationship with his mother, the author stated that his relationship with his mother was extremely important to him and that he and his mother have always gotten along; however, you would not know this from reading the memoir because he allowed the narration of the mother-son relationship to fall away from the attention of the reader.

So how’s it different from an autobiography?

Autobiographies have (thankfully) gone out of style. Pretty much the only people who wrote autobiographies were people who had somehow been deemed “important” public persons, and because they were “important” we, the public, would then want to read all about the experiences that shaped their life and the events that lead to them being “important” and famous.

Memoirs have no such notion of importance. They are the (hopefully) entertaining and moving account of everyday people who have something special to say. Read The Black Dog of Fate if you don’t believe me; the first third of it is about watching baseball on TV with his grandmother. The second third is him realizing she survived the Armenian genocide.

It's not fiction, it's not autobiograph; I still don’t get it.

Most casual readers want to view memoirs as readable autobiographies, and therein lies the problem. An autobiography is fact checked at some point, extensive interviews with witnesses are done, and usually revolves around events so large and well documented that all of this is possible. Memoir doesn’t presume to be the entire truth.

The simplest and most succinct answer did not dawn on me until I read an interview with literary agent Lynn Nesbit where she stated that the thing about memoir is that it involves an unreliable narrator. That was the moment of truth for me.

Memoir is the truth, told with literary devices to make a good, interesting, solid story, told from the point of view of an unreliable narrator. The narrator (author) is limited to only what he knows himself. He cannot know what those around him were thinking or what their reasons were, he can only assume them. He can assume reasons for actions toward him. He can assume people’s histories. He can assume events that went on with out him happened a certain way but the narrator will never know with any certainty because the narrator cannot leave his own mind.

What's an unreliable narrator look like?

Certainly you have a friend who always takes comments too critically, right down to the way someone greets her in a store. Because of this, when she tells you a story about her feeling slighted because of a store clerk you know to take it with a grain of salt. As goes that friend, so goes the memoir.

So why are people upset with this Frey guy?

I haven't read it and don't intend to. As I understand it his novels (which he sold as "memoir" after publishers didn't buy it as fiction), he dealt with a narrator who was a drug addict and overcame addiction, and a narrator who spent time in prison. Frey may have experimented with drugs but never was an addict, never went to rehab, and never spent time in prison. Addiction counselors are afraid that people will think they can deal with addiction on their own “like this guy did” when he really doesn’t know shit about rehab.

That and he made Oprah look like a fool. And you don’t mess with Oprah.

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