Memoir Nation

OPB | March 7, 2008 midnight | Updated: Sept. 10, 2013 8:40 p.m.

When faked memoirs have burned us over and over, why do we keep coming back for more?

We read the story in yesterday’s New York Times about Margaret Jones, aka Margaret Seltzer, the gangbanging fabulist, with more than just passing interest. Because she wasn’t simply the last in a parade of disgraced memorists (remember James Frey and J. T. Leroy and, just last week, Holocaust “survivor” Misha Defonseca?). She was also nearly a guest on this show.

Seltzer was actually booked as our main guest for Monday’s gang show until we got a call from her publicist on Friday afternoon telling us that she would have to cancel the interview for “personal reasons.” We were frustrated at the time, but in retrospect being exposed — by your sister! — as having invented a memoir out of thin air does seem like a great excuse for not being interviewed about that memoir. (Of course, Jones/Seltzer wasn’t above being interviewed in character before the news broke. There but for the grace of the news cycle went we.)

Why do these stories keep coming? Meager fact-checking — by publishers, editors and, yes, radio shows — is one obvious piece. But another tack was suggested by Nix in the Philippines, who wrote on the NYT Reader’s Comments section:

Over and over again we ask “If the story was so good, why didn’t she just sell it as fiction?”

Because fiction—honest fiction, stories that could have happened, to people who might have been, and all the truths, or observations, that can therefore be conveyed therein—doesn’t sell. People want “real people” to put themselves on display for entertainment, rather than be confronted by imaginary visions that challenge them to understand. It is endemic throughout the culture today.

What can fiction offer that memoir can’t? And vice versa? Why do we crave “based on a true story” books and movies and TV shows (and radio show appearances) over those made up out of whole cloth? Has it always been that way, or has the ascendance of memoir come at the expense of fiction?

Are you a memoirist — published or hopeful? How have you navigated questions of exaggeration and authenticity, conflation and precision? Or are you a memoir reader? Is it time to pick up novels again?

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