The discussion from my last post on writing personal narrative went into such fascinating territory that I couldn’t resist posting on the hot topic of ‘creative deformation’ in the memoir. The springboard for this topic is the story concerning Vivian Gornick’s memoir of her relationship to her mother, Fierce Attachments. Addressing a group of students on a non-fiction MA programme, Gornick admitted quite casually (and it seems that her ignorance of fault or lack of shame contributed to the horror the audience felt) that some of the scenes were ‘composed’, and that some of her characters were ‘composites’. This brought forth a strong reaction from the students and a series of critical responses in America’s literary media. Forgive me for not posting all the links here but in the previous post’s comments you’ll find links to Salon magazine’s original article and to the debate on NPR between Gornick and Maureen Corrigan. The crux of the debate revolves around the unspoken pact between the reader and the author of autobiography. Those against Gornick argue that readers who choose the genre of memoir, or any kind of personal narrative, have a right to the truth, and they mean this within a certain journalistic standard (one that is itself highly suspect, but I’ll come to that later) that takes the writing closer to reportage than to literature. Readers who do not get the truth will feel that they have been betrayed or duped by the author, led to believe that something actually happened when it did not, and they will then have every justification for anger.
Gornick’s argument is that memoir and autobiography are closer to literature than to journalism, and that the value of a piece of personal narrative lies in what the author makes of the event, rather than its raw material reality. In The Story and the Situation she describes a rafting trip she undertook with her husband and a friend, explaining how, on their return, they all wrote up the experience only to produce three wildly dissimilar narratives. But each one could be understood to be ‘true’ as it contained the significance of the event as it was filtered through each person’s perception. If the memoir was drawn from her life and sought to communicate the truth, not of every word that was spoken and every place that was visited, but of the emotions and responses she experienced, then Gornick considers that her authorial job is done.
In her broadcast repost to Corrigan’s attack she says, very pertinently I think, that she resents being compared to other literary criminals like Jayson Blair and Doris Kearns Goodwin and this is a point to which, notably, Corrigan never responds. Briefly, Jayson Blair was a reporter on the New York Times who turned out to have fabricated much of his reportage and made errors of accuracy in the rest of it. He was sacked, along with the editors who worked with him. Doris Kearns Goodwin is an academic biographer found guilty of widespread plagiarism in her books, which regularly quote her research sources only without the quotation marks left in. Now it strikes me that there are very important distinctions to be made here in the way that readers are being ‘duped’, if you like. To my mind, Jayson Blair is the most guilty of the three as he was paid to deliver a clearly defined form of reportage, which ought to have involved tape recorders, actually meeting his interview subjects and fact-checking. No one was expecting him to rely on his memory or his powers of analysis because it was his job to tell other people’s stories so that his readers would have an accurate basis for their judgments. If you speak for someone else, then you do owe them a responsibility to report accurately, a responsibility that is regularly abused and corrupted in the media. I think it’s fairly classic that journalists are the first to express outrage over Gornick’s actions when their own profession is rife with inaccuracy. Blair is only the tip of the iceberg, I would imagine, and his crimes are replicated by many, many other journalists who are too tired, too short of time and too keen to get a story to maintain the ‘moral’ standards they will regularly foist on others. I’ve yet to get over my own experience of checking online the reviews of Maggie O’Farrell’s novel The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox and finding, out of the five mainstream newspaper reviews I read, three that contained glaring errors. Doris Kearns Goodwin is a simpler case; her crime is one of laziness and lack of professionalism. It’s precisely in not altering the story enough, not actually processing it through her own analytic faculties but borrowing the work of others, that she breaks the rules. The people who get injured in this particular scenario are the writers of other books who fail to be credited for their brain power. This kind of thing is only going to get worse with the internet, so I agree that it must be upheld as a crime whilst having my own fears about the difficulty of policing the criminals.
Whilst this may seem digressive, there is a real point to making these distinctions because it’s important to figure out what gets broken, who gets injured, within these different literary criminal scenarios. Journalists do have an obligation to write as close to the truth as language will permit them because the stories they tell affect how we vote, how we protest against or accede to society’s demands, what we spend our money on, what we consider our ethical actions ought to be. I won’t go on at any length here about how often and how appallingly this pact is broken by journalists obeying the demands of big business. Plagiarists are a kind of fifth column within the publishing world and ought to be removed, although they are a regularly renewing resource. But what to make of the memoirist? Does his or her story really affect the decisions we make about our own lives and those of our children? Let’s keep it real: no. Does the doctored memoir reflect badly on the publishing industry? Well, there are some that say yes, but let’s pause to think what it means to write the story of a life that is worthy of publication.
My favourite comment on this particular problem comes from the renowned Holocaust memoirist, Jorge Semprun. There’s a poignant section of his book L’écriture ou la vie, after his liberation from Auschwitz, in which he awaits the deportation buses with his friends and discusses how they can possibly tell people what has happened to them. Many are adamant that reportage is the only way, that they need camera footage and written documents and testimony. But Semprun is not so sure; only a few days ago he found a group of young women gazing at the chimneys of Auschwitz and wondering aloud whether they were the kitchens. Before he had reached the end of his explanation they had fled, unable to deal with the horror of what he was telling them. No, says Semprun, what’s needed is a bit of art, a bit of artifice. The story has to be told in a way that it can be heard, otherwise we cannot tell it at all. Nowadays we are used to seeing atrocities on television, but back in the 1940s this was not the case; there was a huge work of education to be done for people to comprehend what had occurred, and Semprun knows he is right. The Holocaust always represents the very end of the scale as far as life writing is concerned, but the principle applies to all its variations. Recently I’ve been trying to write about my early experiences as a mother and it’s very difficult to do as so many of them were quite miserable. If I tell them straight, then the result may well be truthful, but it may also be unreadable. There has to be a bit of art, some detachment, some awareness of factors and feelings that had no place in the moment of experience. I will be deforming my experience to make it palatable to the reader who literally demands that act of manipulation from me. If I don’t do it, then I have no reader, in the sense of an absorbing, listening, comprehending witness, at all.
This pact between the memoirist and the reader, one in which the reader asks for both art and truth, is a tricky one to fulfill. And much as I have read a great deal of angry comment by readers being asked to consider their own responsibility in the reading encounter, I’ll risk further wrath by bringing it up again here. Readers are not innocent vessels who simply accept what they see on the page and absorb it without mediation. Readers are always busy (as indeed is wholly correct) sifting through what they read, questioning and analyzing and generally listening out for other stories beyond and below the one with which they are presented. Readers, in other words, have their own essential role to play in the act of making a story mean something, in the extraction of what we might call ‘truth’. They are not victims. One may protest that if a memoir alters its material details then readers are being misled as to the context for their judgments. It’s been suggested in the Gornick story that a simple declaration at the start of the book that indicated certain changes, certain alterations, would have sufficed to give the reader a reasonable handicap. But let’s bear in mind that when Augusten Burroughs did exactly that for his memoir, Dry, he was pilloried in the press for writing fiction and calling it fact. Once again there was the angry declaration that the reader was being betrayed or cheated, which are strong words under the circumstances. I think we have to look very closely at readerly expectations here and wonder what lies behind the emotional force of the response.
I’m not sure I have a full answer for that inquiry, but I do worry that this sense of outrage is based in the current cultural climate of accountability that attempts to regulate our yearning for absolute entitlements. This is always an illusory hope, and one that seeks to bulldoze over the top of deeper, darker feelings that are more difficult to address. And the fear of litigation must surely be an influential factor in the author’s mind these days as well. One kindly blogger reminded me to check with my son whether he minded appearing as an object in print, in case he decided to sue me in later life, I imagine. I duly mentioned it to him and he afforded it a nanosecond of his attention before replying ‘Nah,’ and returning to his computer game. I understood his feelings: he has the rest of his life to get even if he decides I’ve been unjust. But what if I wanted to portray his friends negatively, and their mothers held the accounts of their unreasonable or anti-social behaviour against me? I might well consider a composite character to be an answer to my prayers: the essence of the event transposed onto a figure who couldn’t actually take me to court. These things are a two-way street: the more readers demand accountability from writers, the more writers have to think twice about every word they publish. Do we really want to iron all art, all vibrancy, all controversy out of the memoir and make it impossible to publish unless it has the undeniable dreary accuracy of a church newsletter? (with apologies to lovers of the genre.)
Of course all this is very different to the works that get published as memoirs and turn out to be entire fabrications. But I’ve run out of steam on this issue and wonder what you all think of the situation thus far. And why has it arisen now with such force when I can assure you these issues – involving crooked journalists, academic plagiarists and unreliable memoirs – have been with us since publishing began?