Lorrie Moore on the Memoir

I recently had a one-sided conversation with a certain writer and self-professed celebrity of middling repute, a former writer of fiction. “What’re you working on these days?” he asked. I told him I was working on a new novel. “It’s all about nonfiction now, son,” he said, and then he rambled on and on about how fiction is dead and there’s no point writing something nobody wants to read. His opinion struck me as ignorant and abrasive, and also nothing new, nothing, at least, David Shields and a thousand other bloggers haven’t touched on post-Reality Hunger, but it also made me think of what Richard Powers said in our Believer interview, about the importance of fiction:

Neuroscience has recently turned up evidence for these extraordinary circuits in the brain populated with “mirror neurons.” These things fire both when we perform an action and when we merely see someone else perform the same action. Other experiments suggest astonishing evidence that doing and imagining share the same circuitry. The primary visual cortex requires more blood when we merely imagine a scene than when we actually see it. Heart rates rise in subjects told to imagine running. Subjects who merely visualize physical exercise over an extended period can gain two thirds as much muscle strength as those who actually perform the same exercises. So fiction may be a far more potent thing than we think. Natural selection must have favored a love for fiction. Clearly, it has some survival value! Life is a complex and dangerous enterprise. Of course we’re going to love taking the thing out for a spin on a completely safe practice track where we can try out any threatening or thrilling maneuver whatsoever, without any consequence except experience.

But our need for fiction also betrays a desire for kinds of knowing that nonfiction can’t easily reach. Nonfiction can assert; fiction can show asserters, and show what happens when assertions crash. Fiction can focalize and situate worldviews, pitching different perspectives and agendas against each other, linking beliefs to their believers, reflecting facts through their interpreters and interpreters through their facts. Fiction is a spreading, polysemous, relational network that captures the way that we and our worlds create each other. Whenever the best nonfiction really needs to persuade or clarify, it resorts to story.

The other night I watched the new HBO movie based on the early-1970s reality show, An American Family, and since then I’ve been thinking a lot about story and the manipulation of story, especially with respect to so-called “real” narratives. Every story, of course, whether fiction or nonfiction, is manipulated by the author to a certain extent–the supposed “nonfiction” of the aforementioned middling writer is very, very manipulated and opinionated, by the way. But to what extent does that manipulation make a certain work “fiction” or “nonfiction”? And what are the moral implications of either tag? Should we expect our “nonfiction” to deliver the “truth,” as the critics of the controversial, possibly “fictional” nonfiction book Three Cups of Tea seem to argue? Or should we suck it up as a culture and just all agree that every text, whatever we call it, presents a version of the truth, not an absolute truth?

Being a novelist, I’m pretty comfortable in the foggy gray territory of writing fiction, and I’m not the only one. The great fictioneer Lorrie Moore seems to say a similar thing in a recent review of The New York Review of Books. Granted, she says it a lot better than the rest of us:

It is hard not to be impressed with Fran Lebowitz’s comedically acerbic dismissal of memoirs: when asked in the Martin Scorsese documentary Public Speaking whether she would ever pen one, she quickly replied that if your life were all that interesting, someone else would write a book about it.

Despite having some sympathy with this idea, or with caustic wit, or with avoiding writing, one can nonetheless assume that there are good reasons to embark on a memoir: the world and the self collide in a particular way that only you, or mostly you, can narrate; you would like a preemptive grab at controlling the discourse. For instance: Are you Winston Churchill? Are you Nixon in China? Are you Pat Nixon in China? Did you compose Nixon in China? (Its composer, John Adams, has in fact written an engaging memoir.) Are you connected to a fascinating and underexplored chapter in history in any manner whatever? Are you a professional storyteller with a beautiful prose style and some autobiography begging for reportage? Are you a trenchant thinker with incisive analytical powers? Do you have a social cause you would like to advocate strenuously? And if none of the above, are you Brigitte Bardot?

If not, wherefore the memoir? Are you helpless before your own life, and unsure of how to write the autobiographical novel that might exploit or explore or redream it into art? Do you have a case of what the literary critic Michael Wood has called “catastrophe envy”? Have you drunk the Reality Hunger Kool-Aid of David Shields’s current “anti-novel jihad” and joined him in chiding the limping dog of fiction as if it were an unfortunate habit of lying, an omnivorous pornography of the real, instead of the struggling but majestic thing that it is? Are you coming into the house of narrative through the back door because the back door is where the money is? Are you prone to what a recent article by Neil Genzlinger in The New York Times Book Review suggested might be the “oversharing” of inconsequential you? “Unremarkable lives” should go “unremarked upon, the way God intended,” Genzliger wrote, in what reads like a reversal of the final lines of Middlemarch—George Eliot on a perversely moody or perhaps drink-addled day.

That many young people are already writing their memoirs is no longer a funny thing to say but an actual cultural condition. Book buyers have nudged publishers in this direction: we love to read memoirs. Why shouldn’t we? At a dinner party is not the fiction, which consists predominantly and unfortunately of abbreviated film plots, protracted jokes, and urban myths, less mesmerizing than the real-life tales? It would be heartless not to be interested in memoirs. People are telling us their personal stories and speaking to us of their private lives and even if the structure is rickety and the prose has, to borrow Dick Cavett’s phrase, “all the sparkle of a second mortgage,” we are going to hang in there because it is true. That the facts and details of these jumbled confessions are occasionally fudged and embellished, however, seems inevitable, given the limits of memory and the demands of writing. (There are many things a storyteller must add and subtract to tell a good story.)

Dick Cavett, himself a first-rate memoirist, became the prompt for Lillian Hellman’s James Frey moment when in 1980 Mary McCarthy said on Cavett’s show that every word in Hellman’s memoirs was a lie. (A lengthy lawsuit ensued.) In 2006, James Frey had to account to Oprah for the fabrications in his memoir A Million Little Pieces, after which he began writing fiction, as if in penance. It is interesting for fiction writers who always alter and reimagine the facts of their lives to watch memoirists get in trouble for doing exactly that. That fiction prompted by the autobiographical is not the same as a memoir seems an idea that is either professionally or commercially inconvenient or just lamely and confusedly lost on many—though never on a novelist.

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