NBCC member Robin Hemley, director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa (and a new Guggenheim fellow), offers this guest post drawn from his thoughts on teaching a course in the history of the false memoir.
I grew up in a family of writers. My mother was a novelist and short story writer, and my father was a poet, novelist editor, and translator of Isaac Singer’s work. Discussions of what was true or false in works of literature amounted to parlor games in our household, literary gossip. Part of a book’s interest in many cases amounted to what could be considered “true” and what was patently “false.” The publication of Saul Bellow’s “Humboldt’s Gift” seemed to spur more talk about Delmore Schwartz than about the book. My parents had both known Schwartz, and my mother was good friends with his widow, Elizabeth Pollet, and she was a frequent visitor to my grandmother’s beach house in Long Island where they would reminisce about his murderous rages as though they were literary episodes in someone else’s novel.
No wonder, then, I never worried what was true or what was false in book. I approached every book one part supplicant/one part skeptic. I assumed the author would manipulate me, but I didn’t attach a moral value to that manipulation.
One of the problems is that the memoir as a term is insufficient. We expect memoirs to be court transcripts. Forty years ago, when the memoir as a genre was reserved for retired generals and doddering actors, memoirs were called . . . novels. Everyone expected a first novel to be a thinly veiled autobiography. They were often throw-aways, the thing you got out of your system before you went on to do your great work. Everyone understood that the warning at the front of the book that all characters were purely fictional was the biggest fiction of all. Graham Greene made fun of this in one novel when he asserted in the author’s note that “London does not exist.” When Thomas Wolfe wrote “Look Homeward Angel,” he really couldn’t go home again to his native Asheville because he had scandalized so many of the town folk. Five years later when he was world famous the only people angry at him were the ones he had neglected to include.
All this doesn’t excuse bad books. I suggest we apply a new litmus test to the works of “memoir” we read. If the fact that this story really happened is the only thing that recommends it, then let’s not bother. If, as fiction, it suddenly collapses, what does that say of our interest in the book? Reviewers and endorsers have been really caught out badly in a lot of these scandals of late.
My favorite and most embarrassing was Rick Bass’ over-the-top praise for fake Native American Nasdijj (before he was uncovered as “just another white guy”):“Mesmerizing . . . A powerful American classic . . . [that] doesn’t just catch your breath, it stops your soul’s progress in mid-stride.”
Really? Well no. He really wrote that, but does Mr. Bass believe that? Did he ever believe it? I’d venture to guess, no, because I don’t believe everything I read.
But sometimes I believe that everyone really wants to believe everything they read, and want to believe what every politician and historian and journalist tells them, that the experience of reading has suddenly been corrupted and that the most important thing anyone can make us do is believe, when perhaps we’ve go it backwards. Aren’t books better purveyors of doubt than belief?
To test this, I taught a graduate class last year in the History of the Fake Memoir. We started with 1701 and read a fake memoir of a man who claimed to be a native of the island of Formosa. And we read various contemporary fakes, from a fake Holocaust memoir, to James Frey, and Nasdiij and the double fake (fake author) J.T. Leroy.
What these authors had in common was this: once you knew they were fake, they read terribly. The reaction of the class to these books: each class was like a mini riot, like something the French did after hearing Stravinsky’s “Rites of Spring” for the first time. I was impressed and proud, of course. But when we came to Lillian Hellman, a strange thing happened. They knew that she had fabricated at least as much as any of these others in her supposed memoir “Pentimento.” But instead of denouncements, a calm settled over the classroom, a guilty calm. They enjoyed this book. It was well-written. Lillian Hellman could write. Maybe in this case, just this one, we could love the sin but hate the sinner.
I don’t know. It worked for us. So I’m just throwing that out there . . .—Robin Hemley