On the Truth Value of Memoir

This thread just goes on: today on Salon (via Bookslut), a memoirist accused of fabricating some of the details of her life’s narrative defends the license she took, arguing that the genre of the memoir has been mistakenly associated with journalism, and that its devices are primarily literary, not documentary:

A memoir is a tale taken from life — that is, from actual, not imagined, occurrences — related by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story — to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader. What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters. As V.S. Pritchett said of the genre, “It’s all in the art, you get no credit for living.”…

To state the case briefly: memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand.

Such a misunderstanding suggests to me that there is some cultural assumption of truth-value in written representation that has drawn readers to the memoir as a form, an assumption that precedes the memoirs themselves, and that colors our reading of other literary forms, including the blog. I remain curious, though: where does this assumption come from?

2 thoughts on “On the Truth Value of Memoir

  1. I’m fascinated that people think that literal truth is the only truth worth having; or that memoirs will give anything like the whole truth. I’m attracted to fiction, as both reader and writer, by the truth it contains which non-fiction usually doesn’t.

  2. I think this exchange between Gornick and the author of the original Salon piece is amazing. The source of our assumptions about truth in memoir baffles me almost as much as the fact that readers maintain those assumptions. I want to see the litmus test that measures for truth in life-writing… if a memoirist says she felt gloomy as a teenager, but really she felt blue, have the rules been violated? Maybe an excess of faith in an unstable genre perpetuates the legend that life-writers have some means to accurately convey a life. Gornick’s treatise sounds about right to me, though.

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