Memoirs: whose truth – and does it matter?
Two years after the James Frey scandal, a still-roiled genre thrives.
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.
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.
"It's made us cynical," says purchasing manager Gerry Donaghy. He and his colleagues have developed a running joke. Whenever they come across an especially sensational life story, somebody will ask, "What's the pool? How many weeks before it's exposed as fraudulent?"
That said, Mr. Donaghy admits, "The averages are not too bad. Not that it mitigates it at all, but it's not anything I'd call a pandemic." He cites "Beautiful Boy" as one recent example of a memoir that read as especially genuine.
Rather than be overly cautious, possibly losing out on a bestseller in the process, Donaghy suggests book buyers tend to take the position of "let the marketplace decide."
As the Seltzer debacle unfolded, much of the media's scrutiny turned on Riverhead Books and Sarah McGrath, Seltzer's publisher and editor. A number of critics denounced lax fact-checking standards within the book publishing industry, calling for them to hew more closely to those of magazines where large stables of dedicated fact-checkers are frequently employed.
It's a benchmark that publishing houses simply could not meet, says Morgan Entrekin, publisher of independent Grove/Atlantic. With vast manuscripts and limited resources, he says, "The industry would grind to a halt."
Instead he points to author's and publisher's notes – the brief clarifications that may appear at the front of a book for context – a device that may be used more liberally in the future.
"People have always done that to an extent," says Mr. Entrekin. "Now we're expanding them a little bit and trying to be as conscientious as possible with transparency and clarity."
When it hits bookshelves early next month, author David Sedaris's new book, "When You Are Engulfed in Flames" will carry a short preface, labeling the contents "real-ish."
"I thought, OK, that's a good word. It's 'real-ish,' " Mr. Sedaris explains. "I guess I've always thought that if 97 percent of the story is true, then that's an acceptable formula. Put it on a scale. Is it 97 percent pure?"
In 2007, the New Republic published a story by the journalist Alex Heard that argued that many of the facts in Sedaris's writing went past mere hyperbole and into the realm of "invention." Mr. Heard's piece was heartily endorsed by Jack Shafer, editor at large at Slate magazine.
"I don't know how a memoir can be a memoir if it's fictional," says Mr. Shafer in an interview. "In the taxonomy, a memoir is an attempt to capture the truth. A memoirist has all the latitude in the world to describe their interior landscape. But just because they're hot, they can't call the Arctic a desert."
Jessa Crispin, editor of the popular blog Bookslut, suggests that, as a genre, memoir is undergoing serious changes, some of which may prove irrevocable.
"Fifty percent of all books coverage these days is, 'Who is telling the truth?' " Ms. Crispin says. She points to Augusten Burroughs, whose memoir, "Running with Scissors," has been subjected to particularly intense scrutiny following a string of allegations. "It's a constant rehashing," says Crispin. "Now, when people think of memoir, they begin to associate it with lying."
Sedaris has a different perspective.
"What's interesting to me," he says, "is that we live in a time when our government is telling us some pretty profound lies. And then James Frey writes a book and it turns out some of it's not true. No one asked for their vote back, but everyone wanted back the money they'd spent on that book. We're in the shadow of huge lies and getting angry about the small ones."