I’m more irritated by the spinster-swooning over fake memoirs as I am of fake memoirs. Oh my word, someone pretended to be someone else in a memoir. What is our modern society coming to? Where are the standards of yesteryear?
This is the basic dilemma of modern fiction, the problem of mimesis, the snake in the garden of representation. Readers and critics have been fretting about these issues ever since they started running into stories about the inner experience of being human, that strove for psychological or social realism, that claimed encyclopedic authority based on evidence and empiricism. No Greek mistook Oedipus for a real person: he was a cog in a narrative machine, a philosophical claim embodied in a human body. It’s different now, but it’s been different for a long, long time. Baron Munchausen got stuffed up in our collective attic a while back. We have had Rankean disdain for fabulistic histories for a good while.
Even the memoirs that we can unquestionably tie back to their “real” authors are representations of self, full of invention and fiction. Who here read My Life as if it were an unexpurgated reflection of the interior subjectivity of Bill Clinton? This isn’t always a sanitizing process, either. A good raconteur makes their own experiences more lively, crazy, and concentrated in the retelling, often embellishing in the process by borrowing fragments of other people’s stories. My father’s stories from his time in the Marine Corps got richer and richer in the retelling, partly because he shifted around small details of sequence, dropped unnecessary characters (who were probably nevertheless present in the actual experience), and so on.
I am not saying that everything’s a social construction, it’s all fiction anyway, advanced pomo solipsism 101, blah blah blah. Authenticity isn’t some jejune value suitable for the proles which the intellectual class no longer needs. Calling something a memoir is a social contract between author and audience, a moment of public intimacy, a promise of connection.
However, we’ve got to get beyond the middlebrow angst of the literati gasping in dismay as they are fooled once again, beyond the assumption that it’s a sign of our times, a fall from grace. Many readers in the 1970s took The Education of Little Tree to be a memoir of Native American experience instead of a fiction by a Ku Klux Klan member. Laurens van der Post’s books were taken by most readers to be literal truth, when many of them contained the entertaining fabulisms of a gifted storyteller. You name the decade of the 20th Century, and I can find you a well-known book or story that most readers took as true recountings of personal experience where there is serious reason to think most or all of that story is an invention.
There are deeper things to be said about fake memoirs or fake profiles. Here’s the first, the most optimistic insight: that knowledge is the equal of experience, at least when it comes to writing and texts. Take the most notorious faked memoirs of the past two decades: invented experiences of the Holocaust, of being a gang member, of being an Australian aborigine, of being a transgender HIV-positive survivor of abuse, of being mentally ill, an addict. One of the tropes of identity politics at its highwater point was that if you weren’t a certain kind of subject, you couldn’t possibly know that subjectivity. It’s a [insert identity] thing, you wouldn’t understand. If you were that kind of subject, you had a privileged insight that couldn’t be communicated as formal knowledge into all iterations of that identity. If you were Gananath Obeyesekere, you had an insight into the consciousness of all colonial subjects that came before and remained outside of formal knowledge.
The persistence and power of textual impersonations might be taken to question this proposition. Maybe it turns out that when you couple formal knowledge about other peoples’ lives together with the powerful cognitive capacity of human beings to imagine the consciousness of another, we actually can know a great deal about the private, personal, interior experience of other people. So much so that we’re able to persuasively represent what it is like to be another person, even someone radically different than ourselves. Maybe that’s not even a modern or exclusively literary trick: Martin Guerre in the flesh could pull it off as well as Margaret Seltzer. Some people live a whole life as someone other than themselves, and so raise the radical question: who is that person, really? Was Billy Tipton merely a woman pretending to be a man? A fleshy fake memoir who demands some banal middlebrow tut-tutting?
There’s a darker side to this observation. It’s true that passing, both literary and in lived experience, is not the exclusive province of socially powerful elites. There’s a difference between an invention that lightens a burden of oppression and an invention that appropriates suffering for the entertainment and delectation of an elite audience. (I find the entire concept of appropriation far too glib and simple, though, too quick to assign exclusive ownership of repetoires, performances, ideas, and public postures to an entire social identity. If Elvis was an appropriator of African-American music, then where did African-American music come from? It wasn’t cultural phlogiston pulled from the ether.)
Even given my unease with the easy accusation of appropriation, it’s hard to overlook that many fake memoirs peddle the suffering of the afflicted in order to allow the comfortable to vicariously claim a shallow and easy acquaintance with pain and loss, a point that Daniel Mendelsohn explored quite well in his March 9th op-ed. This is sometimes useful for privileged neurotics, for the “worried well”: it gives them some psychological tropes that allow them to grandiloquently expand upon their own relatively petty personal suffering by play-acting and rehearsing far starker and more horrible circumstances. That’s part of what’s going on with the Margaret Seltzers and Misha Defonsecas of the world. Novelists from Flaubert to Updike have done a pretty fair job of making the psychological world of the bourgeoisie interesting in its own right, but that takes talent. It’s a lot easier to write the fictional equivalent of the Grand Guignol, and it relieves the existential burden of just being an ordinary little white person oneself to playact at being caught up in the grand stage of history.
That isn’t just about authors, it’s also about audiences. That’s partly why some banal middlebrow critics and readers slaver so much over tedious writers like James Frey and Margaret Seltzer, because they care less for entertaining stories and more for their own ability to recycle authoritative claims about what it’s like to be a gang member or a depressive or a Holocaust victim. I think Stephen Glass’ journalism would have been great fun, and full of truthful insight, as a series of short fictions. The guy had a great imagination. Many readers would go elsewhere, driven by plodding literalism to try and buy truth off the auction blocks. Rigoberta Menchu is not the sinner. The sinners are those who needed Rigoberta Menchu to be exactly what she represented as in her memoir, as the most maximally oppressed subjectivity, as a pure voice who exactly conformed to what most of Menchu’s avid readers already knew they knew about the experience of being a poorpeasantGuatemalanwoman. I think the Rigoberta Menchu who wasn’t in the memoir is a more interesting person than the invented one (both as story and as social fact) but my taste in these matters is evidently perverse.
We know and can know more about what it is like to be another human being that we commonly admit. At the same time, we could do a better job of asking why it is that socially privileged, basically comfortable, largely white readers have such an avid taste for tedious stories of suffering and loss whose only value is their naive claim to be literally true.