Tuesday, December 30, 2008

I don't understand the urge to publish fiction as memoir.

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.


Tom Ehrenfeld said...

What baffles me is the need to classify these books as a specific genre. I love Frank Conroy's Stop-Time and don't care all that much if he really remembered every last detail that he shares (unlikely) or if he embellished just a smidgen. I'm not reading it as a history book. What matters to me is whether or not the book has its own internal truth, a consistency and plausibility. I don't like when authors claim that a book is one thing when it is another, though, and agree that they should never claim a memoir is a memoir when it is not....but I mostly read these things with a different set of questions. It's not about "Did this actually happen?" as opposed to "Is this true?" Every word put on paper is a lie of sorts, right? (Except these of course)

Anonymous said...

Of course any memoir is going to have some fictional aspects --- dialogue for instance. I don't remember conversations I had yesterday, let alone 20 years ago. But to completely make up a major part of the story? Then write it as fiction "based on a true story."
What is it at the very start of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid"?
"Most of What Follows Is True."
I can live with that.

Richard B.

Delbert said...

The Rosenblat story is so sad. Why is Atlantic Pictures making a film based on a lie? Why didn't Oprah check the story out before publicizing it, especially after James Frey and given that many bloggers like Deborah Lipstadt said in 2007 that the Rosenblat's story couldn't be true.
Genuine love stories from the Holocaust do exist. My favorite is the one about Dina Gottliebova Babbitt - the beautiful young art student who painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the children's barracks at Auschwitz to cheer them up. This painting became the reason Dina and her Mother survived Auschwitz. After the end of the war, Dina applied for an art job in Paris. Unbeknownst to Dina, her interviewer was the lead animator on Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. They fell in love and got married. It's such a romantic love story. Another reason I love Dina's story is the tremendous courage she had to paint the mural in the first place. Painting the mural for the children caused her to be taken to Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death. She thought she was going to be gassed, but bravely she stood up to Mengele and he made her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

Dina's story is also verified to be true. Some of the paintings she did for Mengele in Auschwitz survived the war and are at the Auschwitz Birkenau Museum. The story of her painting the mural of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs on the children's barrack has been corroborated by many other Auschwitz prisoners, and of course her love and marriage to the animator of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs the Disney movie after the war in Paris is also documented.

Why wasn't the Rosenblatt's story checked out before it was published and picked up to have the movie made?? I would like to see true and wonderful stories like Dina's be publicized, not these hoax tales that destroy credibility and trust.

Anna said...

I saw that story in Guidepost and just couldn't believe that it was true but was willing to accept the fantasy. I wish it never came out that it was false. The romantic in me is crushed. I will try to keep this from my very romantic husband to the extent that I can!