Yet another "memoir" has been pulled off the shelves and pulped, after the author admitted that he had fabricated the core of the story -- that he and his wife had met on opposite sides of a concentration camp fence, where she had brought him apples. People familiar with the layout of the Buchenwald subcamp where Herman Rosenblat was imprisoned said it couldn't have happened that way; Rosenblat ultimately admitted that he'd made up that part of the story.
It's a sad thing for Herman Rosenblat and his wife, Roma, who are Holocaust survivors and whose real story is compelling enough without embellishments. It's a financial upset for his publishers, Berkley Books, which had expected the book to be a bestseller. It's a public humiliation for the agent and editors, and renews questions about the vetting process for anything presented as memoir.
My question, though, is why are these stories so much more attractive as memoir than as fiction? What makes people more willing to spend money on a story if they think it actually happened? What difference does it make?
I like memoirs as much as the next person. In the past couple of months I've read memoirs by Julie Andrews and Lillian Hellman, and one of the best things I got for Christmas was a copy of Ralph Steadman's memoir of Hunter S. Thompson. I expect a memoir to be a good-faith effort to remember things as they happened, but I also understand how unreliable memory can be. In creating a narrative, we remember things out of order. We assign meaning and causality in retrospect, making connections and assigning motives that probably didn't exist at the time. The memoirist also, inevitably, betrays confidences, makes judgments and lays blame, and the stress of doing that (or the joy of revenge) carries its own distortions.
This being the case, I don't know how anyone can claim to publish a memoir as nonfiction, and maybe we need to stop thinking of memoir in those terms.
A good novel carries its own truth, regardless of whether its characters or plot are based on actual events. I wish it could be enough for publishers and readers to accept that, and not pretend that good stories are more valuable because they're nonfiction.
As any good mystic knows, many things are true even if they never happened.