In memoirs, varieties of truth

Facts are always important. But so is the thoughtful retelling of a good story.

With the bones of James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" now picked clean, the genre of memoir itself is under scrutiny. According to a Jan. 17 Critic's Notebook article in The New York Times, the "memoir craze," from which Mr. Frey's book is said to have sprung, "reflects our obsession with navel gazing." Other than "a handful" of exceptions, memoirs of crisis are "ridiculously exhibitionistic monologues." "Blurring the lines between fact and fiction," they partake of the same "relativistic mindset" that has brought us the Enron and Abramoff scandals and the "selling of the war in Iraq."

My goodness. Why would any self-respecting person engage in such a thing as writing a memoir?

To begin with, Mr. Frey's book is not a memoir, let alone representative of the genre. Critical events were fabricated. It was written and first submitted as fiction, then fraudulently resubmitted and published as a memoir. Unsuspecting readers, thinking they were getting an honest remembrance, got Frey's flights, or descents, of fancy.

I don't mean to imply that memoirs need to be held to the standards of journalism, or even that imagination can have no place in it. A memoir is the creation of a mind remembering. The writer recalls and reflects on the past and evidence gathered about that past. Usually, the more evidence the better, but as any memoirist will tell you, remembering is always a tricky business.

There are many levels of accuracy. There are memories that the writer can verify empirically. There are memories for which the evidence is irrecoverable. And, moving farther from "objective truth," there are hazy memories, then conjecture, then informed imagination. Here fact and fiction do indeed become blurry.

So what, with this hash of variously accurate memories, should the memoirist do? Where should lines be drawn?

If the critical elements of a first-person narrative arise from conjecture, informed imagination, or imagination that contradicts known fact, then you better call it fiction. That's what Frey should have stuck with. If, on the other hand, a narrative moves among the levels of accuracy that usually arise from research and remembering, then you have a more complicated question. You could call the work fiction. Or you could limit your memories to those that are verifiable and call it nonfiction. But to do the former is to sacrifice the power of memories that the reader knows are rooted in true events. And to do the latter is to sacrifice the power of subjective truth, of our stories that live as imperfect recollections.

Here's what I think: The line that should be most closely tended is the line of trust between writer and reader. Before we give up on memoirs, let's see what's possible within the genre. It is, after all, a remarkably elastic form, which allows the writer to guide the reader though a narrative, the way you might relate a memory to a friend. You pause now and then to comment on the action. You might also pause to tell your friend how clearly you remember a certain part of the story, or where certain information came from and how much credence you put in it.

Similarly, a memoirist can let the reader know when the narrative is moving from one level of accuracy to another. When a reliable memoirist writes, "Here's a bona fide excerpt" from a diary, we understand we are about to receive an empirically verifiable quotation. When a memoirist writes, "My sharpest memory is..." we understand we are about to receive a clear, though perhaps unverifiable, remembrance. And when a memoirist writes, "we must have wept, being a family of inveterate weepers," we understand that a lachrymose scene to follow is informed imagination. These words are from Mary Karr's "Liars' Club," which attempts to establish trust by letting the reader know how much truth is being told. I think that's a worthy endeavor.

Memoirs occupy a peculiar but invaluable patch of the literary landscape. They are not fiction, but nor are they strictly nonfiction. But memoirists have something crucial to learn from nonfiction writers. They can all be more attentive to their pact with their readers and to the varieties of truth that memory yields. At the same time, memoirists must not forget what they're about. A memoir is subjective. It is personal. That's where its authority and power come from.

At its best, a memoir combines hard research, an engaging narrative, the intimacy of lyric poetry, and the thoughtfulness of an essay. The aspirations of memoirs are different from those of fiction or nonfiction, and the measures by which they are judged should also be different. A good story is important. Factuality is important. But the ultimate question about a memoir is: Out of how deep and considered a life does it spring?

In the uproar over Frey's so-called memoir, let's not get carried away. The genre is not the problem. Some of its practitioners are.

William Loizeaux teaches at Johns Hopkins University. He has published stories, essays, and two memoirs. His children's novel, "Wings," is forthcoming next fall.

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