Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Memoirs and Consequences

Another day, another literary hoax. There's something simultaneously unsurprising and interesting about the typical locus of this increasingly common form of fakery, which I'll call the tribulation memoir. The pattern is beginning to calcify into its own genre, with its own conventions:
The fact that we can now discuss the tribulation hoax in terms of its conventions leads me to believe that there's something cathartic in the very act of unmasking a fake--that it responds to a deep psychological need. One of my favorite books on literary forgery (K.K. Ruthven's Faking Literature) argues that the revelation of the hoax is a response to verisimilitude: by calling out a betrayal of trust, writers mask the fact that all of literature is a kind of betrayal of trust. For the length of the book, the reader is required to take part in that oh-so-famous contract, the suspension of disbelief. You're supposed to let yourself be fooled, but after giving that initial consent, let the book take hold of you and try to forget that you're being duped altogether. The literary hoax, by piling on an extra layer of distance from reality, becomes the focal point of resistance to verisimilitude, a diversion from the fact that any book worth its salt is in fact intended to distance you from reality.

The tribulation memoir plays a variation on this theme. The hoaxers make a decent argument: why are their books less worthy as fiction than as non-fiction? Ultimately, in asking this, they misunderstand what their audiences seek in reading about descent into addiction, madness, the bowels of the Los Angeles County Child Protective Services, etc. The memoir is a way to circumvent the suspension of disbelief compact, to get a hit of artfulness without the subsequent crash when you realize afterwards, in the cold hard light, that it was all made up. Memoirs are broadly novelistic--and often analyzed as novels--in the sense that they attach themes to otherwise random occurrences, but without the niggling sense of having wasted all of that time and caring on people who don't actually exist. The standards for style can be lower because the style is not, in fact, the point. The point is the suffering and redemption, underlined by a Law and Order-like declaration that this happened to real people (perhaps continues to happen to real people, in the American manifestation of the genre). Of course, no memoir is ever absolutely truthful--any piece of writing is someone's approximation and stylization of reality--but unmasking the outright hoaxes is a kind of affirmation of the memoir genre itself. It reminds us of the differences between stylization and lying, and it should remind us that even non-fiction is a compact between reader and writer. Changing a name or a place or adding an overarching theme to a life that really just is a series of random events involves an acceptable suspension of disbelief; creating an entirely different childhood for yourself to secure a publishing contract is not.


Posted by Shannon Chamberlain @ 11:05 AM