Law and Conversation

April 22, 2011

Story and memoir: truth or not?

I love to read a good memoir, so the proliferation of stories on books published as memoirs that get exposed as less than truthful is really bugging me.

Most recently, 60 Minutes and other sources, including the very fine writer Jon Krakauer, have cast doubts on the veracity of Greg Mortenson’s bestselling “Three Cups Of Tea,” written with professional writer David Relin. Outside Magazine has an interview with Mortenson on the scrutiny of his story.

Mortenson’s message remains compelling and persuasive: resources from the US and other democratic powers would be far more beneficial and effective if they were spent on facilitating education, particularly for girls, in nations such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, instead of on military operations. Unfortunately, the publicity surrounding the disappointing possibility that the book fudges some facts does nothing but detract and distract from the message.

I can think of at least two possible reasons for memoir writers to be less than truthful in telling their stories. First, it’s uncomfortable to include less than attractive aspects of yourself and your actions in your life story. Second, maybe you think your story just isn’t interesting enough, and would improve with some fiction added.

Fibbing is dangerous, and I don’t see how either of these reasons can justify not telling the truth. If you don’t want to write your life story without changing the unattractive aspects, or if you think you could make it a better story by changing it, why not just publish it as fiction? If neither writing it truthfully, meaning as it really happened, nor writing it as fiction appeals, why write it at all?

I don’t understand why there seems to be a significant segment of readers who think that it’s no big deal if a writer’s work, billed as nonfiction, contains fictional elements. Are these the same people who think it’s no big deal if a witness in a trial, or a prospective juror, who’s sworn to tell the truth doesn’t do so? Why is this NOT a big deal?

Loving a good story as I do, I disagree that a story presented as nonfiction improves when its author adds some fiction (and thereby transforms the whole story into fiction). For me, the appeal of a memoir is that I want to read about what someone actually did, what actually happened to the person, and how the person was transformed by those actual experiences.

I know, and other reasonable readers know, that nobody’s a saint. It’s heartening to read a first-person account that includes unattractive behavior and mistakes on the part of the storyteller, because that’s part of what makes a story universal: we all make mistakes, and we all have some unattractive behavior in our background that we’d like to make sense of, atone for, or otherwise get beyond as part of our personal journey through life. The best memoirists show us, as part of their stories, how they came to make the mistakes they did and then how they recognized and learned from their mistakes. One good recent example is Mary Karr’s “Lit.” Jon Krakauer himself provides another good example in “Into Thin Air,” in which he’s as hard on himself as he is on anyone else. Both books are extraordinarily compelling.

Just as with witnesses in trials, when I learn that memoirists have painted themselves as more virtuous than they really were, or exaggerated events in their lives, I’m not only disappointed but also starting to wonder what else they didn’t tell the complete truth about. Ultimately, fibs always come back to haunt people who didn’t tell the truth and always diminish their stories and messages.

I think that’s even worse for the memoirist who just fudged a little bit than it is for the one who made up a story from whole cloth and presented it as the unvarnished truth.  The latter deserves to be branded as a liar. The former may very likely be a basically goodhearted person with a good message and a good story who unwisely gave in to fear, or insecurity, or a desire to sell more copies, or bad advice, told a story that was mostly, but not entirely, true, and, when the fudged facts are discovered, gets tagged in the same category as the latter writer.

I’m hoping that Mortenson’s detractors turn out to be mistaken, because the story he told is inspirational and his message, I believe, worthy. In the meantime, let’s withhold judgment until he’s spoken further and all the facts are out.

Among many other good posts on this topic, Salon.com has a good essay by Thomas Gladysz, “Before Greg Mortenson and Three Cups of Tea,” about Margaret Bohme’s 1905 bestseller, “Diary of a Lost Girl,” published as the memoir of a young girl forced into prostitution but ultimately exposed as fiction. Radio New Zealand’s Kim Hill recently interviewed James Frey, author of the controversial bestseller “A Million Little Pieces.” Among other things, Frey said “the idea of a memoir in America as it is marketed and published and sold is a bunk idea…it’s just something people slap on the sides of books to sell them.” And The New Yorker has an interview with its staff writer James Stewart, a very fine and thoughtful writer who’s also a lawyer and has a new book out, “Tangled Webs:  How False Statements are Undermining America.” In it, Stewart discusses the harm that the breakdown of the public commitment to telling the truth under oath is doing to our society.

What do you think about less than truthful memoirs? How about not telling the truth under oath? Are these okay? Not a big deal? Is everyone really doing it? I don’t think so, but I’d love to hear what you think.

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December 9, 2010

Three fun books on food

For my Read This! post on Monday I highlighted Jeffrey Steingarten’s “It Must’ve Been Something I Ate,” a delightful compilation of Steingarten’s columns on food from Vogue magazine.  Today I have three other books on food as part of my weekly series recommending three books with a common theme that tell great stories:

1) Heat, by Bill Buford.  Account of the amateur chef and former Granta magazine editor of learning culinary techniques by working in the restaurant kitchen of his pal, renowned chef Mario Batali.  For a fun book group activity, count the number of times Batali uses the f-word.

2) Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain.  Memoir of how the Travel Channel superstar got interested in food and started his career.  Bourdain tells a great story and doesn’t flinch when it comes to the less attractive aspects of his own behavior, one of the marks of a really good memoirist.

3)  Food Matters:  A Guide to Conscious Eating, by Mark Bittman.  Bittman’s articles on food and cooking in The New York Times are superb examples of storytelling; as I noted on Monday, the one on no-knead bread can change your life.  In this book, he recounts his own journey toward awareness of what he eats.  As a bonus, he includes a number of recipes.

If you have an interest in cooking, the forums on ChefTalk.com are a great place to go for advice. 

Three’s a lovely number, but any list of three books necessarily omits many others that are equally good or even better.  What food books have you enjoyed?

UPDATE:  Commenting on an editorial by David Frum on CNNMark Bittman weighs in on obesity and the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

November 29, 2010

Read This: Azar Nafisi, Reading Lolita In Tehran

On Mondays I’ve chosen to highlight a book or a story told in another medium that I really, really want everyone in the world to read.  Today I’m returning to a book I’ve referenced in several other posts.

As I was thinking over the books I’ve read this year, my husband wondered which I thought was the best.  It took me only a few seconds to decide:  “Reading Lolita In Tehran,” by Azar Nafisi, I answered.

In her memoir, which focuses on her life as a literature professor during and after the Iranian revolution of 1979, Nafisi writes of the meaning she found in literature, particularly literature written in English, and provides an illuminating perspective on why totalitarian governments such as Iran’s, and ideologues everywhere, typically focus on controlling and suppressing artistic expression:

“One of the most wonderful things about ‘Pride and Prejudice’ is the variety of voices it embodies.  There are so many different forms of dialogue:  between several people, between two people, internal dialogue and dialogue through letters.  All tensions are created and resolved through dialogue.  Austen’s ability to create such multivocality, such diverse voices and intonations in relation and in confrontation within a cohesive structure, is one of the best examples of the democratic aspect of the novel.  In Austen’s novels, there are spaces for oppositions that do not need to eliminate each other in order to exist.  There is also space—not just space but a necessity—for self-reflection and self-criticism….All we needed was to read and appreciate the cacophony of voices to understand its democratic imperative.  This was where Austen’s danger lay.

“It is not accidental that the most unsympathetic characters in Austen’s novels are those who are incapable of genuine dialogue with others.  They rant.  They lecture.  They scold.  This incapacity for true dialogue implies an incapacity for tolerance, self-reflection and empathy.  Later, in Nabokov, this incapacity takes on monstrous forms in characters such as Humbert Humbert in Lolita and Kinbote in Pale Fire.”

It’s not often that I find a book transformative, but Nafisi’s provided me with a new dimension of appreciation for story and literature.

What’s the best book you’ve read in 2010?

November 26, 2010

More on story from Lynda Barry and Harvey Pekar

I thought I’d exhausted my postings on artist Lynda J. Barry, but another subscriber has alerted the Yahoo! discussion group for Lynda to a Thanksgiving Day announcement from her publisher, Drawn And Quarterly of Montreal, that it will publish *ALL* of her comics, starting next fall.  Above the publisher’s announcement is the very first comic of Barry’s that I remember reading as a college student, which instantly intrigued me and remains among my all-time favorites.  The D&Q announcement is wonderful news for all of us who love Barry’s cartoons.

Today, Barry conducts workshops and has published books such as “Picture This!” aimed at encouraging people to rediscover their creativity and tell their stories through writing and drawing.  Harvey Pekar, about whom I posted last week, wrote of his growing fascination with comics and story during the 1960s, after he met comic book artist R. Crumb.  In his graphic memoir, “Quitter,” Pekar said he observed that underground comics frequently took the bohemian life style as their subject and started wondering why no one had written about subjects more ambitious than hippies and superheroes.  Comics, he wrote, which were simply words and pictures, “were as good an art form as any that existed….Why couldn’t comics be about the lives of working stiffs?  We’re as interesting and funny as anyone else.” 

Pekar held onto his idea and ultimately made it a reality in his “American Splendor” comic books, which acquired a cult following.  By telling his story, Pekar, a career file clerk who had acquired a habit of quitting things in his youth, achieved greatness.

November 24, 2010

3 graphic travel memoirs

Filed under: Books and writing,graphic novels,memoirs,travel — Helen Gunnarsson @ 10:23 am
Tags: , , ,

A week after I decided to dedicate Wednesdays to posts recommending three stories linked together by some common theme, I noticed that NPR is doing the same thing.  There are some great themes:  gossip, family secrets, and France, to name just a few.

To continue my recent series of posts on graphic novels, I’m focusing on graphic travel memoirs today.  Each book below is beautifully drawn and enables you to see the country as the author did.

1) Pyongyang, by Guy DeLisle.  Account of the author’s trip to the North Korean capital.  DeLisle blogs here in French.

2) Carnet de Voyage, by Craig Thompson.  Travel diary of the author’s trip to Europe, with a side trip to Morocco, to promote his graphic memoir, Blankets.

3) Burma Chronicles, also by Guy DeLisle.

What travel books, graphic or not, do you recommend?

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