The New York Times reports that there is a new memoir scandal afoot in American publishing.
At issue is the discovery of what appears to be an entirely fictionalized memoir by a young woman who purported to have grown up in foster care and then to have lived a sub-rosa life among teen gangs in Los Angeles. Like the scandal involving James Frey’s notorious false memoir it turns out that this gangland narrative is simply fiction.
As a teacher and writer of literary nonfiction I want to hold my head. My first instinct is to feel alarm for the art form that I love. Literary memoir is a genre that could be irreparably tarnished by repeated disclosures that something smells rotten in Denmark.
I worry especially because as a teacher I aim to encourage younger writers to write sophisticated and brave nonfiction. I worry because we live in an era when commercial publishing is in serious trouble. I fear that the avenues for the publication of autobiographical nonfiction could be significantly narrowed by the kind of malfeasance we’ve been seeing lately.
What’s worse in my view is that the “trouble” doesn’t lie with the genre. Though it’s tempting to blame “the memoir” in much the way we blame major league baseball for the steroid scandal, the problem doesn’t rest with the “game”—the difficulty lies in the demand for instantaneous and sensational profits. Commercial publishing is driven today by a relentless, starving shark: a shark like all sharks—its momentum driven by sensation and the promise of instantaneous rewards.
It costs too much to run a baseball team or a publishing house nowadays. So you have to get a juiced up superstar to break a time honored record or you need a shocking and quasi-lurid book to make fast profits. Today’s corporate business model is entirely built on fast quarterly earnings.
Book publishing wasn’t always like this. In the good old days publishers could receive tax credits for the unsold books in the warehouse. But in the Reagan “go go 80’s” the tax laws were changed and publishers found that they couldn’t afford to keep books in print. In turn, the industry went from “publishing” to “producing”—and until the incentives are changed this is the way it will stay with literature and with baseball.
Memoir isn’t the same thing as a Hollywood “kiss and tell” story. While an artful memoirist may disclose painful or disturbing facts about the personal past, the larger aim of literary consciousness is largely concerned with ambiguities of all kinds.
Another way to put this is that the true writer of memoir doesn’t overcome anything. A true memoir isn’t a self-help book any more than a poem is a manual on how to build a boat.
Yet in commercial culture the Reagan go-go 80’s lead to the “Oprah 90’s” and both circumstances call for a tabloid friendly form of personal narrative—what I have come to call the “memoir on steroids” which, like the suspicious record keeping in baseball is entirely a function of fast profits.
No one would say that the memoirs of James Baldwin or Mark Twain or Mary McCarthy were sensational narratives about overcoming a singular and crippling one-sided misfortune.
Don’t blame the memoir for contemporary greed.