Thursday, April 12, 2007

YOU MIGHT EXPECT me to be in the "Lies, lies, lies!" camp in the whole David Sedaris imbroglio, but I'm afraid I can't work up Jack Shafer-size outrage.

I've never considered the memoir to be a subcategory of nonfiction. I had no idea anybody really believed that all those things really happened to Sedaris, or Augusten Burroughs, exactly the way they told the stories. I loved "The Glass Castle" and have no doubts about Jeannette Walls's integrity, but I assumed her fantastic life story was maybe 81 percent true. I agree that James Frey went too far, but I remain surprised at the extent of the public reaction.

I wouldn't trust myself to give you an accurate quote from a conversation I had three hours ago, let alone three decades ago. And yet memoirs, autobiographies, biographies and history books are full of quotes. So it should be obvious that a memoir, and even an autobiography, is at least partially made up. Are the two genres identical in their balance between nonfiction and fiction, and different only in scope? Sometimes. There's memoir and then there's memoir. Arthur Ashe published three memoirs -- one a diary of a season on the tennis tour, one a look at his off-the-court life, and a third looking back from the perspective of his final years. I know he must have gotten some things wrong, but I trust there was no deliberate exaggeration.

What Sedaris and Burroughs do falls into another side of the memoir category -- it's a genre without a name, but you know it when you see it. I've done a little of it myself. Exaggeration, hyperbole and even fabrication don't count as deception when you present them in such a way that nobody of sound mind would believe what they're hearing or reading in the first place. The difference between deception and the Sedaris genre is the difference between "Veteran actor John Goodman now weighs 2,000 pounds, The Washington Post has learned" and "Have you seen John Goodman lately? He must weigh a ton!"

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