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Memoirs: whose truth – and does it matter?

Two years after the James Frey scandal, a still-roiled genre thrives.

By Matthew ShaerStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor, Teresa MéndezStaff writers of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 2008

Buoyed by the success of a few flagship titles – including "Eat, Pray, Love," by Elizabeth Gilbert, and "Beautiful Boy," by David Sheff – the memoir category continues to be a source of strength for a publishing industry that has watched sales of literary fiction slip in recent years.

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Mr. Sheff's book, a tale of his son's addiction to methamphetamines, hit the top slot on The New York Times bestseller list two weeks ago, and a movie deal is reportedly in the works. (It has since dropped to No. 4, behind a memoir by Julie Andrews.) "Eat, Pray, Love" is listed as No. 2 on the paperback list; the quasimystical account of self-discovery became a favorite of Oprah Winfrey, who endorsed the book exuberantly.

But memoir has also suffered a string of high-profile scandals, beginning in 2006 when the website The Smoking Gun found "wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details" in James Frey's memoir, "A Million Little Pieces." This year, author Misha Defonseca admitted that her widely read "Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years," was a fake: Ms. Defonseca lived in Brussels during World War II, is not Jewish, and was not raised by wolves. Then in March, Margaret Seltzer said she had manufactured "Love and Consequences," a crit­ically acclaimed tale of gang life in South Central Los Angeles.

"Fiction has lost its allure because of this primitive belief that memoir is more worthy, more authentic," says Todd Gitlin, a professor of sociology and journalism at Columbia University, and author of the memoir "The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage." At the same time, he says, "The bubble of a wholly reliable reminiscence has burst."

That paradox is central to the future of the memoir, say authors, booksellers, and publishers. Though the form has undoubtedly lost some of its luster, memoir sales will likely continue to rise over the next few years, spurred by what Mr. Gitlin calls a search for "authenticity." Since 1999, sales in the biography-and-memoir category have grown from $170 million to $270 million, according to the annual Bowker Industry Report.

Booksellers at Powell's Books, the independent chain in Oregon – where fabulist Margaret Seltzer is currently living – say recent author transgressions have had little effect on the way they purchase or market memoirs.

"There was a certain amount of interest in Margaret Jones [Ms. Seltzer's pseudonym] regionally and locally," says Michal Drannen, marketing manager for Powell's. "But we haven't seen a decline in sales of the genre. From my perspective, I don't think there's a general concern about the veracity of nonfiction memoirs or biographies."

The impact may be more subtle.