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Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics Memoirs

All right, folks. Let's sit down and have a chat about all of the authors you're angry at because you were "touched" by their memoirs, and whom you then decry as demons when you find out they made the memoir up. It's a long overdue conversation, and it's one I really want you to think about.


Oprah took James Frey to task for making up the majority of his book A Million Little Pieces after she had endorsed it and made a good portion of the housewives of America read it. Oprah, the crusader that she is, took Frey to task publicly, outraged at having been deceived by his occasionally fictitious "memoir." He was, in fact, a drug addict, and many of the pieces of A Million Little Pieces are, in fact, true. Lots of fact there for you to enjoy.


More recently, Misha Defonseca admitted that her Holocaust memoir Misha: A Mémoire of the Holocaust Years was entirely fabricated. That's right - she fabricated her memoir of her survival of the Holocaust years. Millions of copies are in print in over 18 languages. Are you horrified?


Folks? The book was about how a pack of wolves adopted her and how she traversed Europe with them after her parents were seized by Nazis. A pack. Of wolves. And you are suddenly outraged to discover she made this up? Please, spare me your sputtering outrage. I realize that we are to take novels by Holocaust survivors seriously, but if you were able to suspend your disbelief *that* much, perhaps you have bigger issues than putting too much faith in your authors.


Today, the Times reports on how Margaret B. Jones's Love and Consequences, a tale of gang life in L.A., is fictional because *gasp* Ms. Jones is a well-to-do white woman with nary a gang sign in her muscle memory. She claims that many of the experiences in the book are a reflection of experiences of her friends in L.A., and that the book was her opportunity to give them a voice. The publisher has recalled all copies of the book and canceled the book tour. Apparently her voice is not as worthy as they thought it was when it was gravelled by crack use.


I ask you this: does it detract from the literary merit of these works that they were fictionalized, to one degree or another? Does this fictionalizing experience merit yanking the book from the shelves? As a reader, are you committed to only being touched by books that are rooted in absolute fact at all times?


These books are no less poignant and heartfelt for having been fictionalized. They were poorly marketed by publishers who were too lazy to do some fact-checking before schlepping a salable author onto the shelves, perhaps. Creative non-fiction is so clunky to say, and even the CNF folks argue about where the line between "truth" as actual events and "Truth" as the meaning the author wants to get across begins to blur.


If your appreciation for a work is based solely on its merit as a piece of actual immutable non-fiction, read a newspaper. Even biographies and autobiographies contain some element of translation in them, and fabricating details, memories, or realizations that only come with looking back over a life.


None of these books should be removed from the shelves, though the authors should likely be tutored in manners. Then again, who can blame a white woman who has the chutzpah to place herself in minority foster-child gangbanger shoes for not admitting to her privileged status? Interesting that her book was taken seriously as a poignant and worthy social commentary only when her audience thought she had those actual experiences.


Change the marketing and repackage the book as a fictionalized memoir. Cluck your tongues at authors if you must. But to censor a book that touches the hearts and minds of people, that generates discussion and engages the reader is certainly more of a crime than that committed by an author who tells a wonderful tale.

5 comments:

PinkAndChocolateBrown said...

Did you just imply that a newspaper is "actual immutable non-fiction"? Oh hon, we're gonna have to talk.

It's funny, isn't it? If these books had been marketed as CNF or even just as loosely autobiographical fiction, they would have skipped the scandal but I'm not sure they would have sold as much, even if the text was the same. People love a good sob story, and give more credence to an author who has had a rough road. It plays much better on Oprah.

Colleen said...

Hee hee, I was wondering if anyone would catch that. No, I'm aware that newspapers are just as guilty of being biased and wrong about things as anything else, really. Perhaps i should have said "encyclopedia," though they also occasionally print errata.

And what does that say about publishers and readers that the books wouldn't have sold as well, or been considered worthy of attention? Ugh. I am disgusted with the world and everyone in it. perhaps I should start watching America's Most Smartest Model and just lose IQ points with everyone else. It means I'll have to get cable, though...

Dorothea said...

When the real voices of real people who have really been brutalized and oppressed are drowned out by this crap claiming truth -- yes, there is a problem, and yes, I think it's perfectly reasonable to point fingers at the liars (among others).

Anna said...

I agree with P&CB and Dorothea -- call a spade a spade, and don't try to sell creative non-fiction as a memoir.

Randolph said...

What a shame that the Rosenblats lied about their story. I wish Oprah would publicize only checked-out true stories from now on forward.

I read about a genuine Holocaust love story in the NY Times recently and it's better than the Rosenblats anyway. Stan Lee and Neal Adams the famous comic book artists were publicizing the story of Dina Gottliebova Babbitt. I checked and I'm surprised there's no book on this yet. It's a great story! It also appears to be all true, thankfully.

Dina Gottliebova Babbitt who was a 19 year old art student at Auschwitz. There she painted Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the wall of the children's barracks to cheer them up. Dina's art became her salvation and helped her find true love!

Dr. Mengele, the Angel of Death, found out about the mural Dina painted and called for her. She thought she was going to be gassed, but she bravely stood up to Mengele and he decided to make her his portrait painter, saving herself and her mother from the gas chamber.

After the war, Dina interviewed for a job as an animator based on the art she did in Auschwitz and the person interviewing her turned out to be the man who created Snow White & the 7 Dwarfs for the movie. They fell in love and got married. Show White saved Dina's life twice! I love this story!