NBCC member Michael Antman recently began a regular column at PopMatters.com, “Read Only Memory,” reflecting on all aspects of the memoir genre. In his first two installments, he focused on the “paradox and presumptuousness” of Alyse Myers’s first memoir and Augusten Burroughs’s “art of aestheticized self-pity.” In his newest column, he contrasts mystery writer Gillian Flynn’s novel Sharp Objects and Michael R. Brown’s memoir She and I: A Fugue. Perhaps to his own surprise, he finds himself as impressed by Brown as he is repelled by Flynn, prompting a consideration on the various relations of fiction and memoir to truth.
The thing is, there has been far too much attention paid in recent years to the issue of falsity in the memoir, and not nearly enough (which is to say, none whatsoever) to the issue of falsity in fiction. Slapping the word ‘Fiction’ on the cover of a book is not a “get out of jail free” card or, more accurately, a license to kill; a novelist has just as much obligation as does a non-fiction writer to depict the world truthfully and with sympathetic attention to characters’ motivations, and that applies even to fantasy, where archetypal and psychological rules still apply, and science fiction, where the laws of physics must either be explained, or plausibly explained away.
But in a mystery novel, which takes place in a world we all recognize, the obligation is even greater. That doesn’t mean you can’t have contempt for a child-murderer, but if you, as author or character or both, have contempt for everyone else, too, including the victims and their families, then there is no moral significance to a murder, and no satisfaction in bringing the murderer to justice.
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