An Experiment for Fake Memoirs

Why are there so many fake memoirs in the world? The latest is Margaret Seltzer‘s Love and Consequences. (I would link to its Amazon page but, alas, it no longer has an Amazon page.)

If you had written a memoir that was, say, 60 percent true, would you try to present it as a memoir or as a novel? If you were the editor of a memoir that you thought was 90 percent true, would you publish it as a memoir or as a novel?

Or maybe a better question is: what are the upsides of publishing such a book as a memoir instead of a novel? Here are a few possible answers; feel free to add more:

1. A true story gets a lot more media coverage than a lifelike novel.

2. A true story generates more buzz in general, including potential film sales, lecture opportunities, etc.

3. The reader is engaged with the story on a more visceral level if a book is a memoir rather than fictional.

Every time a memoir is exposed as a fake, you hear people say, “Well, if it’s such a good story, why didn’t they just publish it as a novel instead?” But I think reasons 1-3 above, and maybe many more, incentivize authors, publishers, and others to favor the memoir over the novel.

With No. 3 in mind, and having read recently about how an expensive sugar-pill placebo works better than a cheap sugar-pill placebo, I thought of a fun memoir/novel experiment. If anyone would like to go to the trouble to carry this out, please let us know and we will post the results. Here’s what you do:

Take an unpublished manuscript that tells an intense and harrowing story from a first-person perspective. Something along the lines of A Million Little Pieces or Love and Consequences. Assemble a group of 100 volunteers for the experiment. Give a copy of the manuscript to 50 of them with a cover letter describing the memoir they are about to read. Give a copy of the manuscript to the the other 50 with a cover letter describing the novel they are about to read. In each case, write and attach an extensive questionnaire about the reader’s reaction to the book. Sit back, let them read, and compile the results. Does the “memoir” truly beat the “novel”?


Dustin Nguyen

Its kind of wonderful to read something so compelling. I don't think half the time you're reading the book, you'll read it differently if the writing is amazing. Just by the word choice and the hidden meaning between words, you'll sometimes even forget that a good novel isn't real. Although i did hear about how Oprah got media appeal for a writer's book saying that it was based on a true story (generally the book is about a crack addict becoming not a crack addict), thus his sale increased exponentially. Oprah found out that the writer was lying so she made him come back on her show and apologize to her and her viewers. Just hearing that makes you wonder if the whole incentive thing of cheating is in play at this situation. Although, to actually prove that the writer had not experienced failure at a rehab clinic and then try to kill himself doesn't seem too far off. You see it in the movies all the time, but if you take the statistics of people actually going through that same series of events occurring is pretty low. If i had actually bought that book i woudln't know what to feel knowing that the author had lied to the readers saying it was a true story. Even books that say based on a true story you wonder how much of that is actually true? When i was a kid some of the horror movies said "based on a true story" and i kept telling myself that only 10 percent was true the other 90 percent came from country of boogeyland. I guess just thinking about it deeply, if i did read a really good book then i said to myself "it really happened" then found out that it didn't...i'd be really angry. The incentive to lie is like a free ride to money land. You have to think that most authors don't make that much money and they have to try as hard as they can to make a living. I guess the author was in that same kind of pickle. The only way though to prove that the author did not do something is if there was someone actually there to disprove them. Other than that the chances of catching him in a lie using the fundamentals of math and probability would be 1-2 %. Thanks for listening!

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Regina Walton

To address the topic Dubner proposes, I think that would indeed be an interesting experiment. I'd love to see if it's true that memoirs are more gripping and sell better than an excellent work of fiction. I'm not too sure about that for myself. Fiction or non-fiction, if the story moves me, it moves me. However, there is a difference in this case. Peggy Seltzer lied and "Love and Consequences" is a complete work of fiction.

There is no autobiographical fiction angle here. She didn't grow up in South Central L.A., she didn't cook rock (in a house with no water...how do you manage that btw?), she wasn't a foster child, she didn't run drugs, she didn't run with the Bloods but fall in love with a Crip. NONE of this stuff happened. There is no Terrell. There is no Taye. There is no Big Mom (with a nickname like that, thank God.) She's someone with a privileged background who came into contact with people from who'd had gang experience or exposure; she heard their stories and took them as her own. At best, she is a ghostwriter who is also a method actor.

So how do we even get to comparing her with Dave Eggers? I loved "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius." Charles, the first commenter, is right. It was presented as exactly what it was a fictional story based on things that had happened in the author's life. I think autobiographical fiction can definitely work and can definitely sell. That book moved me because I could relate and because it's just a good story. I'd recently lost my parents, so I understood how that felt. I also knew, however, that it was a story and not an autobiography.

However, in Seltzer's case, "Love and Consequences" is not even close to autobiographical fiction. It's pure fiction and that makes her a liar. Why is that so difficult to say?

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Raina

I just finished reading Tender at the Bone, by Ruth Reichl. It's a memoir of growing up and her relationship to food. But she's very clear in the preface that some events have been exaggerated or downplayed, and that sometimes two people have been condensed into one, so it isn't 100% factual. It didn't detract from my reading of it, and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

Memoirs of a Geisha I also enjoyed. In the preface, it is presented as a true story. But then in the epilogue the author reveals that it isn't a biography, and I was quite disappointed by that fact, even though I did enjoy the book. I think it has a lot to do with how it's presented up front. If I'm told before I start it that it isn't 100% true, then I come to terms with it. But if I read it thinking it's true and then find out afterwards that it isn't, I feel cheated.

Leigh

We tend to look at this issue as symptomatic of the decline of American education and readership -- we like memoirs because they're prurient, we don't read novels anymore because we don't study the humanities, etc. -- but in many ways, it's the exact opposite.

One reason publishers like memoirs is because the standard for both writing and story is lower in telling a true story than in fiction. Memoirists can get away with cliches and stereotypes in ways that the contemporary novelist never could. No novel could pass off a half-white, half-Native American orphan raised by a black woman named "Big Mom" who falls in with the Bloods in South Central L.A. It looks ridiculous even writing it. But a memoir can pass this off as fact and no one questions it.

In a novel, readers can smell a cliche a mile away. That's a testament not to the ignorance of the modern reader, but to just how familiar we all are with literary shortcuts. Readers are smart, so novelists have to work much harder to excite them.

When people ask why these stories aren't presented as fiction, the answer is simple. They're not good enough stories for a publisher to sell them as fiction. No reader -- at least no reader who actually buys fiction -- would purchase these stories as fiction. Publishers and faux-memoirists don't have any option other than to present these stories as fact.

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Chris

Fargo is an excellent example. But # 7's memory is a little off. The beginning of the film says that it is all true, except the names are changed etc. http://www.snopes.com/movies/films/fargo.asp

Anecdotally, I think this helped the groundswell of popularity of small-budget film with what were then mostly obsure actors.

misterb

Perhaps our unwillingness to be amazed and educated by fiction is a side-effect of the decline of the humanities based education. In the past, the educated individual was brought up on *fiction*, the classics of Greek, Latin and Western European literature. However, in the post-modern world, fiction is criticized to the point of meaninglessness, and you can graduate from college (I know I did) without reading a single "great work". Our attitudes have been shaped to see fiction as frivolous (or sexist or imperialist depending on if you actually did take any collegiate literature) while non-fiction is educational and beneficial.
Perhaps we should all sit back and ask ourselves if perhaps someone like - oh Will Shakespeare - might have been able to teach us a thing or two.

Steve Peterson

I think true stories gain much more than just a visceral feeling or advertising advantages, and it's not a placebo effect.

An event that would be amazing or astounding in a true story will often be trite or corny in a fictional story -- the work of a hack.

Thus, if you are a hack and can only come up with trite or corny stories, you'll do well by passing them off as true.

In fact, I inadvertently reverse-tested the placebo effect when I watched the movie A Bridge Too Far. In the film there's this one scene where a veteran sergeant played by James Caan promises a young officer that he'll take care of him after they jump into combat. Upon landing the sergeant discovers that the officer landed behind enemy lines, then rushes off to rescue him -- races through a forest, picks up the unconscious officer, and zips back to friendly territory while being shot at by Germans. Once there the surgeon won't operate on the officer since he thinks the guy is almost dead anyway and other people need attention. The sergeant pulls a gun and forces the surgeon to work -- and the doctor realizes that he can save the officer.

When watching the movie I thought it was a fictional story, and the weakest spot in the whole film -- just way too corny. But later I discovered it was actually true -- and thus amazing.

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jonathan

The actual number of fake memoirs in print is low enough that we should consider a psychological profile along with the economic incentives for lying. I don't know enough about this to construct this profile - mostly because these books generally repel me - but the ones I've noted are invented personae who have suffered but emerged victorious, and that sounds bluntly narcissistic, meaning the author imagines a life more interesting than his or her real one - which is completely normal behavior - and makes that imagined life the center of his or her real life, as expressed through writing (and then promotion, publicity, etc.). The last step is narcissist.

WB

It definitely is more visceral if I believe the memoir is true. But a good writer can make a novel more affecting and memorable than a memoir that hews to the solid facts.

I loved the prose in "The Kite Runner" but I couldn't forgive the author for the (spoiler) second case of child rape. I would accept that in a memoir, because it would be reality. But in a novel, it was an author's choice to include, and I didn't think it was as integral to the plot as the first instance.

What is the market for follow-ups to memoirs? I would think a novelist has more of a lengthy career (assuming they are a good writer). Or are they just aiming for the talk show/motivational speaker circuit? Are they just in it to be famous?

I loved the second novel by Khaled Hosseini, "A Thousand Splendid Suns." I plan to read all of his future novels. If he had published a memoir first, it is unlikely it would have had the pacing and plotting of a novel, which is what makes for a great read. His novels have given me great insight and a deep compassion for the Afghani peoples. I think they do so on a level that exceeds a memoir because he is able to use plot and pacing and character in a way that you can't in a memoir - unless the memoir is fiction.

But, please, one child rape per novel, max!

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Bamagirl

Why hasn't anyone mentioned Maya Angelou?? She wrote "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings," and it was introduced to me as autobiographical fiction. Since I was exposed to the work at such a young age, I had a hard time grasping the concept, but as I got older, I started to get it -- Ms. Angelou had to recreate scenes that she couldn't possibly remember, and rather than try to present her story -- her "memory" -- as absolute truth, she acknowledged the very human element of memory. That is, that to be human is to forget. And acknowledging up front that it had fictional elements allowed her to consolidate characters, to demonize others to make her narrative more compelling, and other such "tricks." I haven't read James Frey, and obviously not the now-infamous Margaret Seltzer, but it has always seemed to me that more contemporary authors have forgotten Ms. Angelou's lesson.

And what about Barack Obama's memoir, "Dreams From My Father"? I seem to recall that Mr. Obama caught quite a bit of flak in the media a few months back for using narrative "tricks" in his memoir, like consolidating characters or fudging his resume, to have more impact in the overall story. Is his narrative any less compelling overall because of these "tricks"? That's for the reader to decide. But I personally would prefer to know that I'm reading autobiographical fiction and delve right in anyway, rather than get halfway through and find out that the other has fudged the details.

And yet, you can still say... unless you are, say, a former US President, there is absolutely no way that you can know every bit of correspondence and communication that you had in your life. Well, unless you're the star of your own "Truman Show." So, to a certain extent, ALL memoirs have a fictional aspect, because conversations have to be re-created and characters cloaked for anonymity. How does that tie into Frey and Seltzer? If you consider this when reading ANY autobiography, even the most respected or renowned, you suddenly are playing a potentially dangerous game. Would you shelve Frey's "A Million Little Pieces" next to Bill Clinton's "My Life"?

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Holly

Joan Didion said in one of her books "The line between what happened and what might have happened is, for me, unimportant." or something like that...I guess it depends on why you are reading.
Folks do feel cheated when it turns out to be fiction....remember Bridges of Madison County?

Cliff

#6 - Aren't "forced" or cultured pearls more valuable than real ones? That was my understanding.

Tucker

Kathy Reichs disagrees vehemently with this idea. I think it all comes down to legitimacy. A writer needs to have legitimacy in order to have pull with the reader and especially critics and retailers. Having it be titled a memoir gives legitimacy instantly, but it needs to be completely backed up. On the other hand if you have a writer who has legitimacy in the subject matter, like Kathy Reichs, John Grisham, or Dave Eggers, it becomes more interesting to try to parse out the strictly true from the fictionalized. I think that the memoir label is only a shortcut to Oprah, if you need with question-marks it is probably is because the work isn't well enough written to stand up on its own.

whoanellie

The 60% vs. 90% true is a good question that comes about in the film Atonement. Sure, most of the story was accurate in the author's opinion, but then it turns to fiction and the author has a justification for making this choice.
Also, I have a feeling that if any of us wrote an memoir, those closest to us would read it and would only believe about 90%. Even if the writing, in our opinion, was 100% true. How individuals preceive "true" or "accurate" varies widely and depends on the person writing it. Take "Beautiful Boy" and "Tweak" as an example.

Helen DeWitt

Why not do it the other way around? First write a narrative so compelling a publisher is willing to spend a lot of money on it. THEN assemble a hundred or so people with the relevant background, find one of whom the story happens to be true, split the money 50:50 between the protagonist and inspired ghost writer. The story really is true, really is well written, really makes a lot of money and everyone's happy.

Rachel

Like the poster above (#1) I also thought of Dave Eggers and his book -- What is the What --

It is carefully listed as a NOVEL but all of the infomation in it (the introduction, the post scripts) and about it (articles) write about it as the true biography of Achek Valentino (I'm blanking on this last name) --

It's a wonderful book, and an interesting way to get across that it's TRUE without being entirely 100% always FACTUAL

Lyn LeJeune

1,2,3 may be true, but it is true of most present-ay memoirs ONLY in the short run. I also think this is mostly about celebrity memoirs that quickly run their course as soon as the media and buzz turns to someone else- now you know and I know that when Spitzer quits his "job" he will get a huge advance from one of the big six publishers to write his memoir and the public will be waiting for a hot sex scene that will be as dull as the subjects involved. Go to any large chain bookstore or one of the big stores off of US highways and see all of the remainders that, if they don't see for two bucks, will be pulped. The books that last are books that are fiction, that are exciting stories, that strike the imagination of our humanity. Not a memoir of Madonna or even Allen Greenspan, for our sakes. A good story lasts, some even for centuries, something like, oh, The Divine Comedy or A Thousand and One Nights, upon which many books of fiction are based - like The Beatitudes. Tacky memoirs (and yes there are good ones) do not endure in the great libraries of the world. Read Borges!
The rush to publish false memoirs is all about our celebrity culture and no more.

Lyn LeJeune-Rebuilding the Public Libraries ofNew Orleans at www.beatitudesinneworleans.blogspot.com

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Raine

Lenny Timons said, "I wish I could remember the name of this horrific film about an Italian Shephard which I saw in the 80s."

Padre Padrone, maybe?

"Based on an autobiographical book by Gavino Ledda, Padre Padrone is filmed in Sardinian, a regional Italian dialect. The film concentrates on a young, barely literate shepherd boy, who lives under the thumb of his tyrannical peasant father. Rescued from his family-and his isolated lifestyle-when called for military service, the boy eventually emerges as a brilliant scholar."

Charles D

I generally only read non-fiction, so it would be a deciding factor for me. I think it goes along the same lines of 'truth is stranger than fiction' and how people are truly unable to simulate random events.

I think this falls under the same reason why people value real pearls over fake or forced pearls, everything looks the same but there is a natural quality that people like to maintain.

Jon

The Coen brothers' movie "Fargo" was rumored to be a true tale when it came out. The brothers said they never presented it as a true story, but also never bothered correcting tis impression.

I remember being mildly disappointed some time after watching the movie (which was very good) when I found out that it wasn't true.