Genre Confusion (Book, that is…)

In my local bookstore I just picked up a copy of Jeannette Walls latest book, Half Broke Horses: A true life novel and as an instructor of memoir, I wonder about this new genre. Walls last book, a memoir, The Glass Castle (2006), was on the New York Times Bestseller list for quite a while. I read it and loved it. I find her writing quite compelling and she openly called that book a memoir, but I must say I am curious why she decided to call this new book a ‘true life novel.’

I do know that many prose writers who want to tell the story of their lives are frequently in a quandary as to whether they should tell their story as fiction or nonfiction. Typically, I tell my students that there is no correct answer. It’s whatever feels right or organic to your story. Some writers might find themselves experimenting by writing the story in both genres to see which one flows better.

No doubt, whatever genre the author chooses, he or she will encounter reviewer flak, once the book is published. A recent article in The Daily Beast (January 19, 2010), claimed that memoirs raise a perennial problem—sometimes fiction is more powerful than memoir and the main reason is that often memoirists are not as adept at using fiction technique as novelists. More specifically, in this particular article, writer Taylor Antrim proclaims that he views memoir writing as “cheating.”  The article mentions that he felt this even before the James Frey circus of events. He further explains that what he means by “cheating” is not necessarily an exaggeration of the truth, but that the stories sometimes contain blatant lies. He goes on to say that it’s not easy telling a good story without fibbing a bit, and it might be the author’s fabrications that bring a dramatic effect to an otherwise boring life.

As a memoirist first, and a fiction writer second, it is my natural instinct to defend my genre. Memoir is what it is and frankly I’m tired of people comparing it to fiction. It is a completely different genre with its own voice and rhythm. Did you ever hear of people comparing poetry to fiction?

The seasoned memoirist typically incorporates fiction techniques and if in fact, this makes the story appear fragmentary, then so be it. It seems that the writer is ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t.’ If they use too much fiction technique and bend the truth, like Frey, they are considered ‘liars,’ if they leave out parts of the story because they don’t remember them, they are called ‘fragmentary writers.’

 So let’s just accept memoir for what it is and respect the writer who chooses memoir over fiction as someone who has courage and guts to write a memoir without hiding behind the veil of fiction. If you don’t like reading the form, then don’t read it and stop complaining. Of course, there’s good writing and poor writing; there are good memoirs and bad memoirs; there are good novel and bad novels. I believe that if someone is a good writer, it doesn’t matter what genre he or she writes in.

In comparing the genres, Antrim shares examples of autobiographic fiction, such as Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, Maple Stories by John Updike and The View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. Then there’s another genre which has been frequently used, called, the autobiographical novel, examples of which include, On the Road by John Kerouac, Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway, Night by Elie Weisel, Sons and Lovers by D.H. Lawrence and Childhood by Leo Tolstoy. I see two primary reasons for writing an autobiographical novel instead of a memoir —if you’ve forgotten certain events and/or if you want to protect the privacy of loved ones (or enemies).

Another part of me asks “Who cares what the genre is and why are people so intent on labeling?” Perhaps the most important reason for genre-labeling is that bookstore sellers will know where to shelve the book in their stores. In fact, the first question an agent or publisher will ask the writer is, “Where do you see this book in the book store?” Glancing ahead into the future and the inevitable demise of bookstores, I wonder if the genre line will become even more blurred. In many ways, I think it will  be a good thing if it does.

Note to fiction writers: You should know that most of  my writing colleagues are fiction writers and you should not take this blog wrong– it’s just how I feel today, but you know that I love you all and still want to hear what you have to say about this very controversial subject.

5 Responses to “Genre Confusion (Book, that is…)”

  1. 1 Irene Watson April 20, 2010 at 4:38 am

    You are right, this does add to confusion for reviewers, especially if there is no BISAC on the book. It’s one of my biggest beefs as a reviewer.

    I’m told that true-life fiction gives the author license to embellish the truth or tell the truth but call it a novel so family members wouldn’t sue the author or publisher. I personally know of a publisher that was recently sued by the family of an author because he published a tell-all memoir. If this same book would have been published as a true-life novel the family in denial would probably have accepted it as a work of fiction.

  2. 2 Shirley Budhos April 20, 2010 at 7:06 am

    Good question, Diana,

    Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral? And who cares?

    As an educated literary scholar, I’m familiar with categorizing, using footnotes & bibliography, the tools academics employ, and sometimes move from—when they achieve tenure, of course! Or, they spend hours checking facts to find that small point to write about and then support with evidence, which, nevertheless, may be disputed. And, so on.

    As an avid reader, I can appreciate the need for genres to locate and select books. But, as a skeptic, I always pay attention to point of view, whether it is fiction, memoir, biography, poetry; it is very much like depending on findings in DNA which present facts, but do not tell us who we really are.

    However, as a parent, I know that if my 2 adult children wrote memoirs, I’d find completely different versions of their parents’ marriage and our family life, which indicate that memoir, fiction, even essays are colored and shaped by the writers’ sensibility, talent, powers of observation, and understanding of the experiences and incidents described in the written work.

    And, as another has stated, “As a relative of a published writer, we are always in danger of being embarrassed, hurt, or even maligned by such writing.”

    In search of fame and fortune, James Frey was unfortunate to appear on a public figure’s program, for she dealt in absolutes, not literary matters, and the dissection of his work tended to minimize Frey’s worth as a writer, very much like the earlier detailed criticism of “The Painted Bird” by Jerzy Kosinski, who used blurred genres to tell his story. Elie Weisel defended his friend’s version as a personal statement. And I taught “Night” and Kosinski’s book together as an educational choice to demonstrate the bestiality of mankind during a sordid period in history. The students did not protest, but some of my colleagues were offended.

    As a writer, I am familiar with the boundaries of poetry, fiction, autobiography, biography, and memoir, but I do not have to follow them. And, of course, there are unintentional or blatant lies in all genres, but what has the writer presented, and how does it touch, entertain, reveal, and influence the reader? Those are questions most important to me.

    Shirley Budhos

  3. 3 Gracey Hitchcock April 20, 2010 at 7:24 am

    I think people are too intent on labeling writing these days. I also think there is vast difference between making up an entire story to sell a work which some authors have done and the role of memory and writing. The mature reader understands this as do most writers. Writing a “memoir” that as nothing to do with your life at all to be sensational and garner attention and sales makes readers and critics feel exploited. Right or wrong, there is a feeling that that the clearly fictional content (i.e. teenager kidnapped by motorcycle gang or teen drug addict) and the tear jerker interviews and not the writing are what is selling the books.

    But this is quite different than writing from one’s memory of one’s own life or even how one may wish to tell one’s own story. In my oppinion, that is the difference between a writer and stenographer.

  4. 4 Ernie Witham April 20, 2010 at 8:27 am

    Hi Diana –

    Great topic. I like the term Real Life Novel.

    I titled my humor book: A Year in the Life of a “Working” Writer. A Memoir to the Best of the Recollection of Ernie Witham.

    This of course is tongue-in-cheek, though the book is almost entirely based on truth as most humor is. Many of my humor columns are written exactly as they happened.

    Oddly, Borders placed me in the memoir section and not the humor section. Book sales are about the same ;-(

    Ernie Witham

  5. 5 Allegra Huston April 22, 2010 at 6:18 pm

    I enjoyed this, Diana. You’re bang on. I don’t see why a fictionalized telling of a story is somehow “better” than a memoir version – for me, quite the opposite right now. I’m finding myself a bit tired of the tropes of fiction. James Wood’s piece in the New Yorker recently, on realist fiction, nailed it beautifully.
    Certain people think that because they can’t remember much, a memoirist must be making it up. This is usually because those people haven’t really tried to remember themselves – or allowed themselves to remember – and perhaps don’t want to. I didn’t make anything up at all in Love Child – I tried it, because some scenes felt thin, but it just didn’t work, it felt fake and forced and dead on the page. But does anyone think that Frank McCourt really remembered every word as it was spoken? Every writer has to do what works best for the story they’re telling (as long as they don’t represent it as something it’s not). And as you say, if as a reader you don’t like memoir, fine, don’t read it.

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"A writer uses a journal to try out the new step in front of the mirror."

~Mary Gordon

About Me

I am a memoirist, essayist, poet and teacher whose passion is keeping a notebook. My notebook is my muse and my alter ego. It contains personal snippets of my life and observations from the world around me. Diarist Anaïs Nin has been a great source of inspiration for me. My hobbies include writing, writing and more writing, but when I have extra time, I enjoy reading, walking, hiking, yoga, working out, cooking and hanging out with my family and Maltese Poodle, Spunky. In order not to become ensconced by the glare of my computer screen, I also teach in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and in various conferences and festivals around the country. My pleasure comes from sharing my joy of journaling with professional writers and anyone interested in writing.

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