Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Reading Memoirs, Fictional and Otherwise (Long)

There's been a huge kerfuffle stemming from the revelation that another memoirist was actually a fabulist. (This time it was a Beverly Hills rich kid pretending to have run with gangbangers in Los Angeles.)

More interesting than the pathetic flounderings of the author are bloggers' meditations on why readers embrace memoir and express anger when yet another book in the genre turns out to be make believe.

Megan McArdle weighs in, but the more interesting framing is put forth by one of her commenters, who posits a fairly realistic theory of reader psychology:
I'm making a serious attempt to parse this, but it seems like the desire to read non-fiction boils down to:

1. I don't want people to think I read crappy non-fiction, so I'll read fiction that pretends to be non-fiction.

2. I want to read something deep and meaningful but not something "made up"... so I'll read fiction that pretends to be non-fiction.

On the other hand, the author who lies about his/her memoir is basically lying to give their story credibility. In other words, he/she wants the reader to either falsely take away from the story a lesson about how people really are or excuse story weaknesses because "it's what really happened."

Any way I look at it, fake memoirs are a fraud and a bad thing. They may be a pretty trivial bad thing, but they are a bad thing. They will add false information to the common knowledge about certain people or situations. It would be like a scientist making up some good data and adding it to some big database. If it's .1% of the data and it's data on average beauty mark sizes, then it's probably not a big deal. But it's still not right.
Others have seized on this as an opportunity to castigate readers for wanting to get information about the world from such books in the first place:

bitchphd: i think people really want to read "gritty" stories? ... in any case, it's historically an ongoing problem: people want to read stories about things that are "exotic" to them.
m. leblanc: maybe people get upset because they rely on the writers of those books to tell them truths about the world.
bitchphd: and can, of course, be very gullible, precisely b/c they don't really know what the truths are.
m. leblanc: and when they find it's an unreliable narrator, those truths are suspect.
bitchphd: and being fooled forces you to face your
gullibility, your lack of sophistication? ...
m. leblanc: yeah. well it's almost like people think there should be some kind of gentlemen's agreement about the sanctity of "memoirs."
bitchphd: well, yeah. which is dumb.
m. leblanc: and we agree to take these things as empirical fact to influence our thinking about policy. which is nonsense. ... because i think it's intellectually lazy. ... they don’t want to go to the trouble of finding out whether something is an accurate representation of "life on the street" , for example. they want it all to be perfect and accurate, so they can use it as the basis for their opinions, rather than reading something boring like reports or studies. or, like we said earlier, going into those communities or schools. ... it's like.. here's an analogy: if there was a peer-reviewed journal, they would want authors to submit everything with an affidavit that says EVERYTHING IN HERE IS COMPLETELY ACCURATE. instead of reading it, using critical thinking and saying, "does this go along with what i know?" they want a seal of "authenticity" so that they can trust it completely. which, of course, is a completely foolish desire, because there is no authentic memory. ...
bitchphd: right. and! we want to believe that reading this kind of thing makes us Better People.

The comments to that post take care of the many objections that spring to mind.

I don't usually read memoirs and especially avoid the sort of movie-of-the-week ones that seem to have become so popular. I do, however, read fictional books in part to gain information about my world, and I think that makes me a much better person than someone who isn't curious at all about such things or who adheres so firmly to the idea that only first-hand experience or self-generated criticism is valuable that s/he ends up with a tiny sphere of knowledge. In part, this is an efficiency determination: I want to both inform myself and be entertained. If my interest in a topic is not intense, it may be preferable to devote my precious leisure time to something that satisfies both desires, since it takes substantially longer to read a nonfiction work than a novel or memoir.

As a former editor, I also expect scholarship to have something of an implicit guarantee that the author believes it to be accurate, as well. If I received an article that represented that Case/Experiment A came out one way when it really came out the other, I wouldn't care how much the author really thought that the former was what should have happened. If I wanted to read the primary sources, I would, but sometimes what you actually need is synthesized information, so you're not constantly reinventing the wheel.
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