Should memoirs be considered fiction?

Posted November 11, 2020 by Lory in discussions / 23 Comments

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I remember how it rocked my world when a New Yorker article showed that Madeleine L’Engle’s portrayal of her life and family in her Crosswicks journals was more of a fictional construct. Since then I’m cautious about assigning factual truth to memoirs, but I tend to give the authors some leeway.

Goodness knows, if I had to write the story of my own life, there would be a lot that was not strictly accurate. Our memories are not photographic records, and we do tend to “re-remember” the past as a defense mechanism against painful experiences or to make sense of disconnected incidents.

If this is done unconsciously in the writing of a memoir, it’s understandable and human. If it’s done consciously, with deliberate intent, then such a book seems to depart from the realm of nonfiction. And given that sometimes it’s hard to know what really happened, maybe all memoirs should be assumed to be “fictionalized.” But is there something wrong with that?

There can be different levels of truth, and sometimes the truth of a narrative is not in the bare facts. Some memoirists are able to tread that line gracefully, letting their real selves shine through what will necessarily always be an interpretation, a reordering of lives phenomena.

If too much is concealed or distorted, though, it seems problematic. If it’s an attempt to push some agenda, or present a false persona, the claim to any kind of truth should be discarded.

What do you think? Should memoirs be considered fiction or nonfiction? And does it matter?

Linked in the Book Blog Discussion Challenge hosted by Nicole @ Feed Your Fiction Addiction and Shannon @ It Starts at Midnight!

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23 responses to “Should memoirs be considered fiction?

  1. Good question. To me, all non-fiction has an element of fiction, given that the etymological root of ‘fiction’ is the Latin fingere, to ‘form or contrive’. When I give a factual argument or account I of necessity select which ‘facts’ (‘things done’, from facere, to do) to present and in what order, and which to omit; and thus I form or contrive (fingo) a narrative which I claim is what was ‘done’ (factum.

    I am leery of autobiographies or memoirs which give matter-of-fact accounts without caveats. There are seemingly unassailable facts (say, those on official birth certificates) and less certifiable ‘facts’ (what someone thought, or said without independent witnesses). I’ve read too many gonzo accounts, usually making audacious claims, which rely on the writer’s say-so without verification of any kind, to not consider most memoirs to a greater or lesser extent fictional.

    If I ever got round to a memoir of, for example, my childhood, I’d be using a mix of scattered documentation, grainy photographs and reconstructed sequences based on faulty memory, and I’d have to be honest about that, along with ascribed motivations.

    • Yes, a narrative of any kind is a construction, even if it’s nonfictional and not personal in any way, e.g. relating a historical event or a scientific discovery. We can only try to approach the truth as closely as we can, and be as honest and transparent as possible.

      The best memoirs, to me, bring to life the human being behind the scattered experiences, so that I feel I’ve met a real person. As with a friend, I can forgive a certain amount of misremembering — but I would balk at downright lying.

  2. This is such a tricky area but a good question to consider! Ruth Reichl writes a little bit at the beginning of Tender at the Bone about the fallibility of memory, and different people remembering the same event different ways, etc. It’s a good caveat to keep in mind in reading memoir.

    David Sedaris is one who’s been questioned about embellishment in nonfiction, and when I saw one of his readings an audience member asked about that, about whether he really is telling true stories. He said that for one essay that had been recently published (I think it was in the New Yorker) the fact checker had even called a dishwasher repairman who was briefly mentioned to verify. So maybe his weren’t historically always 100% true, but seems to be held at a higher standard now.

    I think they should be considered nonfiction when a writer is truly recalling their experience without embellishing, and if anything is added, it should be weighed against the parts they have solid evidence for to determine whether this is actually fiction. And they need to be upfront about what and why fictional elements are included. I chose not to finish one memoir where the author identified none of the “characters” as actually being real people, but rather all combinations of different people she’d known or encountered during that time. It had so much dialogue and descriptions of these people and their backgrounds that I realized I’d be questioning the whole book what was true, since these combined figures were so central but had obviously been heavily edited if not entirely invented. But I appreciated her honesty in at least being transparent about that.

    I also like in memoir when an author questions their own memory, like “this seems unbelievable, or I know it sounds strange, but this is how I remember it happening so I’ll tell it that way.” That actually feels the most true to real life to me.

    Anyway, what a great discussion! Thanks for something to think about 🙂

    • The other side of this question is the autobiographical novel, in which an author sometimes only lightly disguises her life and the real people in it (who can be very surprised or upset to find themselves in “fiction”). There is then an outcry that the story was not fictionalized ENOUGH.

      We are so dualistic in our thinking that it’s hard to conceive of an “in-between” realm that can legitimately exist. If fiction is too close to the real world, it’s considered intrusive, and if nonfiction departs too far from it, it’s considered falsification. It’s a dilemma for authors! I do really appreciate it when they are just honest about what they changed or rearranged, even if I might have labelled the result in a different way..

  3. Oh, I read that article on Madeleine L’Engle and it did the same thing to me! I think she wrote about how she *wished* her life was. In a memoir, I do expect some…editing, because usually the author is looking to construct an arc of development and so they pick and choose what to talk about. So it can get a bit blurry. But I don’t want to read something labeled a ‘memoir’ that turns out to have fabricated incidents — and it seems to me that if you’re going to write a memoir, you shouldn’t pretty it up so much that you’re leaving out huge swaths of your experience (like L’Engle did). Memoirs aren’t required, after all.

    • I wonder how conscious her “storytelling” really was. Was it deliberate falsification or a warped view of reality? But either way, it’s disturbing. I’d like to read the recent biography “Listening for Madeleine” that gives many different people’s points of view on her. Maybe that is the best way to get at the truth of our lives, anyway.

      • Maybe so. It would certainly be interesting, and painful, to read a book like that about oneself!

        I wonder about that too, whether it was deliberate. I think it was; she either couldn’t bear to write it out for the world to see, or felt it was too private…something like that.

  4. I always assume that autobiographies include elements of fiction since most fictions include elements of nonfiction. However, L’Engle seems to have gone a bit too far. I want memoir writers to be honest with their readers about their lives. Of course, they will select the stories that they want to tell or that they believe has had a defining effect on their careers etc., but that’s different than inventing a new life.

    • In this case, it was more like portraying certain parts quite accurately but editing out others that she found too difficult to confront. That is very understandable, but not really kosher for writing “nonfiction.”

  5. I agree there is a murky line between acceptable and unacceptable representations of one’s life in a memoir. When I was younger and first realized how much a certain memoir I had just read and enjoyed had been ‘modified’, I was very put out. I think to be labelled a memoir, there needs to be a sincere attempt at accurate portrayals. But who is to be the judge of that? I used to think the label ‘autobiographical novel’ was ridiculous; now I think it should be more widely used for those memoirs that take more liberties than you might expect in a work of non-fiction.

    • There is a line that should not be crossed in memoir writing. I can understand getting muddled about the order of events and so forth, but there are larger issues that should really be kept straight, I think.

    • I wonder if some issues would be solved by having some kind of inbetween category? But I don’t think people would like that. They want to know what is real and what is fictional, insofar as that is even possible.

  6. This is such an awesome question! I have wondered the same, honestly. Because I mean, I get that they’re often for entertainment value, but that makes it seem even more like it should be in fiction! I saw your comment above about an in between category and YES I agree! Or even perhaps calling them different things? Like if you can say, cite actual facts and such that corroborates the story, then it can be called something. But a sensationalized (or reliant on old memories, even) book can be labeled as something else- not even necessarily fiction, just something where the reader can know that it’s not wholly fact based. Great topic!

  7. Challenging question! My dad, who was a newspaper photographer, used to say, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” I think a memoir writer has the right to skip over certain parts of the story–they’re sharing part of what has shaped them, not writing an official autobiography. I’m okay with mistakes of memory and possibly even rearranging of events or collapsing of characters in order to maintain narrative flow. But definitely no on making up events or outright lying about what they did/said/felt.

    • Lying is right out, I agree. However, there are times when we do really close our eyes to problems like alcoholism or abuse in our own lives, and that is so sad to see. It makes me aware of the need to be really honest and transparent with myself, even if I’m not intending to put anything out there in writing.

    • It can only ever be a subjective truth, I believe. But some memoirists have more compunction than others about checking facts and verifying impressions. So do some novelists!

  8. I’m fine with a memoir being considered nonfiction as long as the author has described everything to the best of their ability, based on their memory and any other available corroboration. I mostly don’t care if it’s strictly accurate down to the last detail, since I’m typically reading a memoir for enjoyment rather than to learn factual information, so I can live with the fact that the author’s best efforts to tell the exact truth might fall short of perfection. Intentional and undisclosed embellishment would bother me though!

    • Good point about the memoir not being about learning factual information. Sometimes there is an intersection with history though, and then that should be fact-checked, I think.

  9. I was CRUSHED when I read that New Yorker article!!! I can’t believe I’m reading about it here–wow, kindred spirit. I’m not sure I’d say they are INTENTIONALLY fictional, just it’s one person’s view of their own actions. It can be problematic. Someone like a president who has his every moment documented can come closer to the truth and someone who is just realling life. With no on writing letters any more, and ealy tech files mostly lost, it will be a challenge for upcoming author’s of memoirs and for historicans, too, to recreate lives. Good post.

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