According to The New York Times, Margaret B. Jones, author of “Love and Consequences,” a memoir about her life running drugs for the Bloods in South Central Los Angeles, has admitted to fabricating her entire story. Misha Defonseca, who published “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years” in 1997, also recently admitted to Slate.com that “Misha” is “not actual reality.” These scandals broke just a couple years after James Frey admitted to making up certain details of his 2003 memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” an incident which begat an average “South Park” episode.
There are two basic sides to any argument about this kind of authorial deception. One would say the authors are fakes and deserve to have their books pulled from the shelves, their royalties seized by the I.R.S. and the need for carnivorous earwigs to be inserted into their brains. Another side would say: big deal. It’s a story. It’s still entertaining, so take it for what it is.
I’ll take a third side. This fabrication is emblematic of a larger problem in literature today. With fewer and fewer kids reading, publishing houses going out of business and the days of the iconic novelist as dead as Norman Mailer, there’s little room for the up-and-coming fiction writer to succeed. But everyone enjoys a good memoir. People love to read uplifting, inspirational stories. They’re the slightly more literary equivalent of watching the crack-addicted teen on “Maury” or “True Life” right himself and re-enter society.
Thanks to the emergence of reality shows on television, people want to see true stories. Bret Easton Ellis’s fictional accounts of sex and violence in “American Psycho” don’t titillate the American psyche like they used to. Instead, they need Tucker Max, who is like Patrick Bateman without the skull-fucking.
The thing is, these purportedly true memoirs (the ones that haven’t been proven false anyway) can’t possibly be any truer, than, well, “True Life.” “True Life,” “Made” and other inspirational reality TV narratives almost certainly use the same kind of behind-the-camera manipulation deployed in such farces as “Date My Mom” and “Next.” Any memoir ever written will suffer from a different problem: No one (save Borges’s “Funes the Memorious”) can remember every detail of his or her life. Even Tucker Max, who carries a tape recorder with him everywhere he goes, admits on his own website that when he couldn’t remember a detail, he just made it up.
So why exactly are memoirs held up to a magnifying glass when no one cared that “Walk the Line” changed or left out a great number of facts from the two Johnny Cash autobiographies it was based on? My answer is not that the public feels betrayed by these liars, but that they feel betrayed by the memoir itself. These days, a film “based on a true story” will always gross more than a fictional one. This is, I imagine, why the Coen Brothers put that same tagline in “Fargo,” even though that film was as fictional as “Beowulf.” But the problem with memoirs is that the word itself carries a certain connotation that no film or TV show can. When someone reads a memoir, they expect a glimpse into reality. When memoirists take even minor factual liberties, the audience has lost their trust in – in this world of heavily-spun news media and manipulated reality shows – what they thought was one of the last bastions of brutal frankness in American pop-culture.
In another world, Margaret B. Jones, who grew up in affluent Sherman Oaks, not East LA, might be lauded for constructing a story of inner-city life so convincing that her publishers never questioned its credibility. But instead, Jones is chastised for being creative, all because of the precious memoir, which vastly overrates absolute truth – something that since the age of Homer has never been essential or even worthwhile in a compelling story.
So when will this trend of glorifying true narratives as being so much better than fictional ones end? When writers like Jones don’t feel they have to justify an invented story by pretending it’s true. Until then, we’ll have frustrated novelists tweaking their stories into truthdom, all while we have to suffer the consequences.