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Take an unpublished manuscript that tells an intense and harrowing story from a first-person perspective.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”?


I'm not surprised to see this happened. Seltzer's/Jones' story in the Times seemed a little to unrealistic. The most notable to me was that a foster child/gang member went to college and an out of state college at that? Whoever believed her without questioning some of these basics had to be either stupid or thought the rest of the world was even more stupid.

While a memoir can be more of a *fascinating* read, the risks of writing a fake memoir seem too great. Love and Consequences or A Million Little Pieces would have been interesting works of fiction and their authors' careers would likely have lived to see another novel. Now, however, both are in ruins.

I recently read the intentionally and publicly fake memoir that was What is the What? by Dave Eggers. I thought it was strange that he wove the fake memoir into a work of fiction, although of course no one would've believed he was a Sudanese refugee.

It would've been possible for Seltzer to do this sort of thing or simply have written fiction.



An even easier, even more obvious example of the experiment you're describing is the mere existence of websites that expose internet stories (typically chain emails) as myths. I was recently passed a story about the worst first date story on the Jay Leno show. As I was reading it, I was amazed, but skeptical. As soon as I finished, I googled the story and my suspicions were confirmed that it was indeed untrue. I started to let the sender know this, but decided against it. She was so happy to send it to me, I decided to let her story live on as a true story in her mind (hoping to keep her joy higher).

Why would the fact that someone actually urinated on themselves make on a first date maker her happier? My guess is that it allows you to believe that it could actually happen (that is if if did happen, then it must be a possibility).

D. Johnson

Please, in the name of all that is holy, don't use the word "incentivize." It's a word that consultants made up to use in place of a perfectly good word that already exists -- encourage -- and make themselves sound smart. Sort of like when they say "optics" instead of "perception."

Brings back all sorts of bad memories of my days as a consultant.


When someone thinks it's real, it creates a more personal perspective on the events (imagine if the most graphic, violent film was a documentary - is it now a more compelling action flick or just obscenely gross?)

It's kind of like the Blair Witch - the hype was so great because people were assuming it was true - it made it more intense, and more scary. Once you know it's fake, it becomes less appealing, less personal, the human factor is removed.

Of course, I find it funny you mention "film deals" with memoirs when most memoir-to-film becomes less of the memoir and more of a novelization (where characters become combined into one, it's glamorized, etc.)

Mario Sanchez

4. The incresing acceptance of certain subcultures to accept "my own personal reality" as something that may not be fact-based, but still somehow representative of a "general truth" that the subculture is founded upon.

5. The willingness of individuals to exploit "their own realities" to increasing their stature, celebrity and financial value within a subculture.

As a simple example of #5, note the stereotype of individuals who - in order to increase their standing in an American culture that values individual acheivement - exaggerate the poverty from which they emerged or hardships they had to overcome. The old joke "I had to walk to school uphill both ways barefoot in the snow" reflects this stereotype.

A more financially & personally profitable and politically useful example of both #4 and #5 is "I, Rogoberta Menchu," a memoir whose most dramatic and important points are not only pure fiction but also coincidentally perfectly aligned with the viewpoints of the Latin American aboriginal and leftist movements.


cognitive dissident

The original Amazon page may not be available, but some things never really disappear...check out Google's cache
of the page in question...lots of one-star reviews, and plenty of annoyed readers.


One big factor you're missing is how critics treat memoirs versus fiction. Literary critics will skewer something that is written as simple and straightforward as most memoirs.


I think we are just reluctant to call people liars. It's considered impolite and there is always the remote possibility that a far-fetched story could be true or mostly true and we'd be really embarassed.

Suppose a guy at a cocktail party claimed to have awakened from blacking out, and found himself missing teeth, covered in blood, and on a plane to he-knew-not-where. Or a white gal told you she'd been placed with a black inner-city foster family and ran in gangs, then one day up and went to college. Would you challenge them, or just say, "Hmmm...that's interesting" and let it go?


I'm not so sure that acknowledging up front that some events have been fictionalized is a problem. If you look at Dave Eggers' "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," it seems to fit right on the line between novel and memoir. There is obviously a lot fictionalized in the book, but the foundation is Eggers' own experiences. So maybe being honest could actually work.


I've read novels that I thought were memoirs at first, and it did take the sheen off when I found out otherwise. But I don't think there's anything wrong with fictionalising a memoir in places as long as you 'fess up.

lenny Timons

I wish I could remember the name of this horrific film about an Italian Shephard which I saw in the 80s. I watched it with a friend. Afterwards, I asked him if the compelling tale was true. He asked me why it mattered. To my mind though, going from tortured shephard to successful filmmaker is a more compelling story than a fictionalized account of the same events.

However, why not just put the "Hollywood" disclaimer about the thing being a work of fiction on the Library of Congress page and still market the thing as a memoir. That way you can have your fiction and sell it as true.


While I agree that a reader is likely to be more invested in a "true" story, I think it is equally important to acknowledge that the bar is set higher for a fictional author than it is for an author of a memoir.
Someone who writes a memoir is seen as somewhat of a reluctant author - "I was living an extraordinary life and was compelled to tell my story." Thus, the level of writing is not scrutinized.

Richard von Hippel

A memoir I recently published (kindle) for a lady has already been challenged as a fake. If you think you can tell a fake memoir from a 100% real memoir and are up for the challenge, I will send you the pdf


I was wondering whether you are aware of anyone that "followed up" and did this field experiment.