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.