Monday, January 29, 2007

Ethics and the memoir

We're all aware of the guff about James Frey's false-memory memoir, but what is the line between truth and literary nonfiction? Wow, what a loaded question! But here's what the Poynter Institute's Roy Peter Clark had to say about ethics.

In it Vivian Gornick defends herself from critics who say she fictionalized scenes, as saying:

The notion of literalism and factuality was a foolish yardstick for what is true or not in a memoir. The memoir is a genre that needs educated readers, not people who are reading for all the wrong things, in all the wrong ways. . . .
In a memoir, the reader should feel that the narrator is honestly trying to
get to the bottom of the experience, not that a literal transcription of a
remembered life is being put on the page.

When I teach my classes, I mention this kind of controversy, about how the memoir is more of an impression rather than direct facts. But since I started this world as a journalist, I also say that it's up to the writer to try to find the truth as much as possible. By interviewing people familiar with them or with the scene they are attempting to recreate. A lot more work than just making up the entirety . . . but how much more honest!

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