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Take an unpublished manuscript that tells an intense and harrowing story from a first-person perspective.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