Tuesday, June 23, 2009

How Much Truth is Enough

In an LA Times article, Marion Winik, the author of six memoirs, explores “the ethics of personal storytelling.” This is a hotly debated topic these days, in large part because of several high-profile “memoirs” that didn’t check out. On one end of the spectrum lies the opinion of James Frey, author of the (largely false) memoir A Million Little Pieces:

I believe, and I understand others strongly disagree, that memoir allows the writer to work from memory instead of from a strict journalistic or historical standard. It is about impression and feeling, about individual recollection.
In opposition to Frey’s position, most people expect most details in memoirs to be true. But what is truth exactly? Winik asks, “If two people remember something differently, is one of them wrong? Wasn't my memory of a memory also real?”

In my view, a memoirist has a responsibility to the truth, but by “truth” I mean the memoirist’s own personal truth, not the objective truth (if that even exisits). A memoir is the truth as it’s refracted through the prism that is the memoirist. If I wanted the disinterested, objective truth, I’d find a history book.


mike mitchell said...

I don't care if it's true or not. A good read is a good read. But don't represent it as fact if it's not....and a good history treatment is not "disinterested" Gwendolyn.....:0

Anonymous said...

I agree with you - I believe it is impossible for memory and individual perspective to produce an "objective" truth. Also, you say, the very way in which each person's truth is processed tells you something about the person at the meta level as well. I think that should be clear to people reading memoirs.

Lit and Life said...

Even in a "history" book you will not necessarily find an objective view of historical events. We call the war that resulted in the United States of America a "revolution." In England they still call it a "rebellion." In a memoir, I expect the truth to the best of the person's recollection but less so than I would if they called what they are writing and autobiography.

Zibilee said...

I don't have a problem with a creative view of the facts when reading memoirs, but outright lying just totally bothers and annoys me to no end. I did not read the Frey book after the scandal for just this reason. Anyone can just make up a story, it's not all that special.

rjnagle said...

See also William Silverman's Fearless Confessions. Author/memoirist Joy Castro wrote an interesting discussion of the book .

Funny I recently ventured into personal storytelling and faced some similar kinds of ethical issues. In a way, fiction offers you a lot more protection from accuracy charges.