Memoirs in question, from field to screen
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Matt McCarthy’s minor-league baseball memoir, ‘Odd Man Out,’ is doing well, sales-wise -- it’s No. 21 on the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. But it’s taking a beating from former teammates and coaches who say they didn’t behave as inappropriately as McCarthy claims -- which may be true, or may be a case of he said/he said. (McCarthy talks to the L.A. Times about the controversy). More serious questions have come from critics who cite game statistics to show that McCarthy has some of his details wrong; they maintain these inaccuracies throw his entire book into question.
How much room should we create for the fluidity of memory in memoir? Is McCarthy, a graduate of Harvard Medical School and now a first-year resident, just telling his story as he remembers it, or has he crossed a line into untruth?
Recent memoirists who’ve gotten carried away include Herman Rosenblat, whose book, ‘Angel at the Fence,’ was canceled after he admitted that there was no girl helping him to survive the Holocaust by passing him apples through a concentration camp fence. Rosenblat was imprisoned, but he made up the story of the girl. ‘It wasn’t a lie,’ he told ‘Good Morning America.’ ‘It was my imagination, and in my mind, I believed it. Even now, I believe it.’ Similarly, James Frey exaggerated the extent of his own dissolution in ‘A Million Little Pieces’ and wound up apologizing to Oprah on her television show. ‘When you go through an experience like the one I went through, you develop different coping mechanisms,’ Frey said. ‘I think one of the coping mechanisms I developed was this image of myself that was greater than what I was.’
And Ishmael Beah’s ‘A Long Way Gone’ -- a harrowing child-soldier memoir that has sold hundreds of thousands of copies -- seems to have its chronology wrong, according to a trio of Australian journalists. The Village Voice took a long look at the simmering controversy last year. One of the more generous readers was Primus St. John, an English professor at Oregon’s Portland State University. He told the paper, ‘One thing that comes up with memoir is what’s true versus what’s authentic. Getting everything perfectly accurate is not exactly the point in memoir. That’s an interestingly naive perception of the genre. After all, fiction tells truth as well.’
But when you play with memoir and fiction, sometimes fiction takes over. That’s the case with full-on fakers like Laura Albert (who invented JT LeRoy) and Margaret Jones/Seltzer, who knowingly constructed a memoir of a gang life she didn’t live. But as imaginative as these two may have been, they didn’t invent fakery....
The progenitors of Albert and Seltzer are the focus of the new book ‘Fakers: Hoaxers, Con Artists, Counterfeiters, and Other Great Pretenders’ by Paul Maliszewski, who has been embroiled in a literary mix-up or two himself. His book looks at fakers in literature, journalism and art. ‘Art historians have a much better grasp on fakes and fakers than journalists. Art historians actually study fakes,’ Maliszewski told BookSlut. ‘Unlike true art, fakes don’t tax or challenge or arrest the eye. They feel comfortable. They fit in with what we already know, maybe they subtly congratulate us for knowing it, maybe they’re just similar to something else we read or saw. Think of Stephen Glass’ fictional articles for the New Republic. For all that was colorful and hilarious in them, at heart they were quite plain, bland even, just repackaged versions of the conventional wisdom.’
That’s going to be the territory of a movie in the works based on the novel ‘Erasure’ by Percival Everett, which will mark actress Angela Bassett’s directorial debut. ‘Erasure’ features an African American novelist who, when his serious work is rejected, pens a parody, an exploitative ghetto autobiography. By filling the cliched expectations of a racially biased publishing world, his alter ego, Stagg R. Leigh, is both taken seriously by critics and headed toward commercial success. Then, the Hollywood Reporter explains, ‘he must choose between pride and fame.’ Which may be the choice faced by so many of these memoirists caught between truth and fiction.
These controversies show that, at some level, we think memoirs should be honest, and that there is no gray area between truth and fiction. But at the same time, we allow many memoirs the creative license to render complete conversations and long-ago events, things that only in the rarest of cases could be remembered in such detail. What determines which authors are called out on their inventions (McCarthy) and which, in general, are not (Beah)? Is it simply that some writers cross the line? Or is it that we, like Fox Mulder, want to believe, and feel betrayed by nonfiction writers who convince us of that which is not true?
-- Carolyn Kellogg