Good Prose 2: The Problem with Memoir

I’ve read more than one memoir and wondered, “Did this really happen? Is the author remembering correctly or perhaps just making things up entirely?” Memoir is a knotty genre. Can we trust it? Should we? Can a book be truthful even if it isn’t factual?

Scandal in the genre of memoir has made a comeback. In 2011 well-known author Jon Krakauer wrote that Gregory Mortenson’s much loved bestseller Three Cups of Tea was fiction presented as fact. In 2005 Oprah excoriated James Frey as he confessed that A Million Little Pieces (part of Oprah’s book club), was full of exaggerations and lies. Then in 2008 Oprah was duped again with “Love and Consequences” by Margaret B. Jones, a self-described half-white, half-Native American foster child and former drug runner. We (and Oprah) found out it was a fictional story written by a white woman, Margaret Seltzer.

So it’s not surprising


that in Good Prose Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd take a hard look at the genre. Certainly writers and readers seem to wink with a boys-will-be-boys attitude at some of the tales told. How often I’ve come across reams of dialogue from decades back that the memoirist can’t possibly have remembered. Kidder and Todd say a reader has “only two options: to stop reading most memoirs, or to accept remembered dialogue as artistically licensed in this genre, as a convention of the form, like a papier-mâché sky at the back of a stage or the propensity of characters in an opera to break into song” (p. 57).

While affirming subjectivity, they reject using it as an excuse for unfettered literary license.

Subjectivity properly understood is really just another name for thought. Subjectivity simply acknowledges the presence of a mediator between the facts and the truth. That mediator is you, the writer. Acknowledging subjectivity absolves you of nothing. On the contrary, it makes you the one who has to explore the facts, discover what you can of the truth, and find the way to express that truth in prose–knowing as you look for the way to do this that you cannot be complete, that every inclusion implies countless exclusions, that you must strive to do no violence to those facts and those truths that compete for your attention. (p. 85)

Long ago I heard of a situation in which a man on a street pushed a nun to the ground and began beating her. Those were the facts, I was told. But they weren’t the truth. The truth was that her clothes had caught on fire and he was trying to put out the flames.

We all have an obligation to the facts. And we must begin there. But facts do not guarantee truth, which is our ultimate obligation.

Next Installment: Good Prose 3: The Business of Writing

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

4 thoughts on “Good Prose 2: The Problem with Memoir”

  1. I’ve had something of the same thing occur to me as in the article–did I actually have a memory of an event, or was I merely remembering what other people related about the event.

  2. I thought of the English movie director Jon Boorman’s quote :
    “What is fiction except truth liberated from facts”

    Take that ye empiricists of this world!!!!!!!

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