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« "Rush" to Hillary | Main | Is Privacy Dead? (Andrew) »

March 04, 2008


Is that, in essence, the appeal of a memoir which takes the reader into the mind of the author as a person undergoing unique experiences, as opposed to a novel which might force the reader to take on the persona of the protagonist?

No, I don't think so - quite the opposite I would think. We are more likely to put ourselves in the shoes of a memoirist than those of a character in a novel. We believe in "unbelievable" suffering, fear and courage more readily if we perceive them as real life experiences of a real live human being. The same experiences attached to a fictional character would be dismissed as melodrama and purple prose. Take the following example:

If we had seen a movie thriller before 9/11 which depicted evil terrorists flying into tall towers on tilting wings of airplanes, we would have dismissed it as cheesy fantasy. But now the same imagery will send shivers down our spines.

I read about Margaret B. Jones and Love and Consequences in today's (yesterday's) paper. I have never heard of Misha Defonseca.

That's a possibility I hadn't thought of- that the very tag of 'memoir' lends more credibility to the experience, as opposed to something tagged as fictional. Some authors do walk a fine line when they package memories as fiction, as I suspect was the case in a recent book that I read- Nikita Lalwani's 'Gifted'.
I too had never heard of Misha Defonseca until the news came out a few days ago about her hugely successful (mostly in Europe) Holocaust memoir about being adopted by a family of wolves as she tried to escape the Nazis around the age of 7. Interestingly, she fought and collected $22.5 million in a suit against her publishers
Misha Defonseca was reluctant to tell the story of how, at the age of 7, she fled to the Belgian forests in 1941 when her parents were taken by the Nazis. But the publisher persuaded her to produce: "Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years" which recounted the four years Defonseca spent living in the woods, sometimes beside wolves, hiding from the Nazis during World War II.

In August 2001, a Middlesex County, Massachusetts, Superior Court jury awarded $7.5 million to Mrs. Defonseca after finding that Mt. Ivy Press breached its contract with the author in numerous respects, including by hiding legitimate royalties in off-shore accounts, and further defrauded Defonseca by misleading her about Mt. Ivy's capabilities and how the book would be marketed within the United States.

Curiouser and curiouser...

Another point that occurs to me, in the light of the massive publicity blitzes that go with these book releases, part of the hype is built up when they turn the author into part of the commodity to be sold, as they have done with the JK Rowling brand name. There would have been hordes of eager, panting talk show hosts to interview and promote the memoirist, probing questions into the psychology of childhood trauma and such. All that gone in a poof, once the author admitted to fakery ( James Frey and Kaavya Viswanathan come to mind, naturally!)

Hmm...we both asked the same question in our blog posts :) Hadn't heard of that Fiction Bitch post, I shall read it now..sounds interesting.

All of the silly controversy simply distracts from the real issue, namely, whether or not the author is capable of compelling, beautiful writing, as, for example, I am not. The truth of every written work is in the ink on the page (and I'm not being figurative here). Empathy, reliance, and trust are effects far removed from the aesthetic criteria that determine the value of a literary text, its elegance and formal balance, its irony and manifold deceptions, its pure solipsism. They have more to do with making economic decisions, like where to pursue one's career or education, or whose thingumajig to buy.

Whether or not Lawrence Durrell's Bitter Lemons or, as I've just learned, John McPhee's Brigade de Cuisine, or Doris Lessing's Golden Notebook deliver accurate facts is entirely irrelevant to their success as compelling texts.

So there.


The real issue here is not the skill of the author, which is taken as a given in these situations, but the intolerance of the marketplace to the purveying of fiction as fact. In an pre-internet age, these allegations would have undoubtedly taken much longer to come to light and be disseminated widely enough to mean anything to the pocketbooks of those involved. It's a sad commentary on our times that all the critics who praised the 'memoirs' to high heavens recant their hallelujahs the moment it transpires that the memoir is a figment of imagination, good writing be damned.
Do you think Lawrence Durrell would have survived hordes of avid google-crazy reporters checking into his precise whereabouts in the year 1926, which placed him in the vicinity of Istanbul, rather than Cyprus, just for an example? They might have ended up denouncing his Bitter Lemons as a faked memoir too, had they been able to do so.

Durrell was in Istanbul when I imagined him in Cyprus?! Why, that sham! My dream of expatriating to Cyprus has been vanquished. I'll forever associate the island with personal betrayal.

I agree entirely, Sujatha, with your take on the critics. What was the object of their favor in the first place if an extra-textual circumstance can so radically alter it?

I'm not sure the accelerated fact-checking afforded by the 'net entirely changes things, though. Seltzer was undone when her sister discovered a story about her in the House & Home section of the NYT, evidently. Perhaps sis read it online, but that hardly qualifies as the sort of digital collaboration that drives Wikipedia or the FL/OSS world.

Sujatha, I'm surprised Ruchira is letting you get away with language like "FictionBitch" on the blog!

I think the primary issue for upset readers is that the story means more to them if it's "real." Should it? And what does this mean, anyway? I think there are two things going on. First, readers are unable or unwilling to suspend disbelief. Second, they want to (and therefore do) feel a different kind of emotional attachment to "real people" (another example of this might be politics).

Hey, Joe! See my post on Internet Ethics and anonymous blogging. I pay tribute to Bitch Ph.D.

I think fictional memoirs and their literary value are a concern if as Sujatha and Dean point out, they contain execrable writing but get published due to their falsely represented "real life" value. Beyond that who cares? But there is a difference between Durrell being in Istanbul instead of Cyprus and a privileged white girl claiming to be a foster child in a black family as a courier of drugs for the Cripps (or was it the Bloods?). It is one thing to gild the lily of one's life experiences and quite another to invent the lily altogether.

If a fictional "memoir" also becomes a vessel for something beyond mere "fiction" and goes into the realm of recorded history, that is a bigger problem. For example, in the case of Misha Defonseca, her account was promoted as a wrenching part of the Holocaust (although some experts smelt a rat) by the likes of Elie Wiesel.

When I was about sixteen years old I read with utter fascination "The Third Eye" the memoirs of one Lobsang Rampa, a Tibetan monk with occult powers who was purportedly a deputy of the Dalai Lama. It was much later that I learnt who the amazing Lobsang Rampa really was!

See the Amazon reviews page of the book and some of the readers' responses even after knowing that the book was unadulterated fantasy.

Two articles in the Slate on this very topic. The first one explains why the fake memoirists are getting caught. The second one is a practical (and funny) manual for fabulists on how to avoid getting caught.

Here's what the publishing industry ought to do to defend itself against the onslaught of fake memoirists.

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