02/23/2016 05:36 EST | Updated 02/23/2017 05:12 EST

Memoir And The Persistent Problem Of Truth

We live in the most autobiographical era of human history, documenting and sharing the minutiae of our daily lives. It's hard to know what impact this will have on memoirs yet unwritten: if you remember the sweet crunch of an apple you had in your lunch box on the first day school, but an old Instagram photo reveals it was an orange, which is truer -- the taste in your mouth or the picture of a fruit you do not remember?

While the taste that lingers in your mouth might be most salient, a sensory truth wouldn't be truthful enough for a memoir today. Memoir, as a genre, has been under intense scrutiny since that watershed moment in 2006 which saw James Frey tumble from Oprah poster boy to flailing pariah. Investigation into James Frey's best-selling memoir of addiction, A Million Little Pieces, resulted in the accusation that he had betrayed millions of people. At first Frey, asserted that the memoir reflected the "essential truth" of his life (it tasted like an apple, if you will), though later, under further pressure, he confessed to having fabricated significant portions of the book (it was actually an orange).


The fact that A Million Little Pieces was initially shopped around as a novel tends to be forgotten. When my first novel, Mouthing the Words, was about to be published in the UK, my British publisher asked whether it couldn't be promoted as memoir. But how could I possibly publish this story about a child who had been sexually abused as my own when it didn't reflect my own experience? Sure, I identified with many of the protagonist's feelings, but isn't that what writing and reading are about? From a publishing perspective though, I got the sense that if something read like truth and borrowed enough facts from an author's bio, it was legitimate to market it as such.

But that was in 2000, six years before Oprah spoke publicly of Frey's betrayal and his publisher offered refunds to those who felt they had been victims of fraud. Frey took the fall, yet all the interested parties were invested in, if not exactly the deception, the willing suspension of doubt. A lot of money was riding on it: five million copies were sold.

We make sense of our lives by ordering events in narrative form; we find and construct meaning and identity in this way.

The kind of scrutiny the Frey case raised has pushed us to go further in our attempts to both acknowledge memoir's conceits and work with and against them.

It's never been a secret that a writer uses narrative technique in the telling of his/her own story. There are ways in which our stories are framed and narrated for effect, there are moments of compression and expansiveness that don't necessarily reflect the time it took for certain events to be lived, we leave out the boring uneventful stuff and make omissions for reasons of poeticism or unity or preservation--of ourselves and the relationships we hope will survive the memoir's publication. We focus on what is salient to us at a particular moment, we link experiences through time, finding parallels and thematic resonance, we craft a story so that our lives have texture and meaning and are something more than simply a recollection or chronology of fact.

This has never been a secret because this is what we all do, whether we are are writers or not. We make sense of our lives by ordering events in narrative form; we find and construct meaning and identity in this way. At a minimum, when we tell someone else a story we give it a beginning, middle and end. We add humility, heroism, pathos, humour. Perhaps we end with a lesson we did not see in the moment of the event, but only find in the aftermath, in the telling.

David Shields, author of the manifesto "Reality Hunger" goes as far as to say that "anything processed through memory is fiction." He expresses disappointment with Frey, not because he "is a liar but [because] he isn't a better one. He should have said, 'Everyone who writes about himself is a liar.'"

So how then do we deal with this persist problem of truth?

Karl Ove Knausgaard and a number of other writers have confronted the challenge of factual representation by blurring genre distinctions. Knausgaard's six-volume My Life is a series of "autobiographical novels." By resisting the charge of memoir, he may be pointing to the impossibility of being anything but a flawed or unreliable narrator of one's own life. But he may also be having his cake and eating it too: I, for one, am tired of the metafictional pretension of novels with characters named after their authors.

Those who persist and risk the claim to memoir do so with all the awareness of the pains and pitfalls of the past decade. Often, they necessarily engage in some kind of metacommentary as they write the story, asking what truth is, acknowledging the conceits of memoir, interrogating themselves in the attempt to, as Mary Karr writes, seek "the truth of memory -- your memory and character -- not of unbiased history." Good memoir ultimately transcends its subject. By using personal material in order to speak to bigger ideas, it serves to illustrate and analyze aspects of human experience, which is experience shared.

See a short video of the author talking about her book, This Is Happy.

The video was prepared by the RBC Taylor Prize for the Huffington Post.

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