Humans have always wanted to know about ways of life very different from their own: perhaps that is one of the secrets of the genre of “novel” but certainly it goes far back into the ancient world of history -- I’m thinking of Herodotus, though I’ve never sat down to read him. Today, with reality TV probing every corner, it becomes harder and harder to even think of a “world” that’s not homogenized by TV, music, and simple commerce. Maybe this is why we are so interested in sequestered worlds like the Mafia, the underculture of discarded kids, the drug culture, brothels, harems, slavery, witness protection program, spies, combat troops, and so on. I suppose these are mostly transgressive worlds because what causes them to be sequestered is the need to avoid law enforcement or at least social censure. But we also seem to have a craving for religious cults, mythical contexts like vampires and werewolves, and accounts of drug adventures. Some of them seem to concentrate on “super-virtue” like nuns or “super-justice” like, well, Superman but also various scientific and otherwise “super” entities.
Lately everyone seems to take an equal and opposite pleasure in the unmasking of a memoir as pure invention. It’s as though some people are trying to prove there is no alternative world, no privilege. Today on a NPR show a woman in the publishing world suggested that memoirs tap into a “self-help” vein which people hope will show them how to succeed, or at least prevail. But others want to say, “You’re just making it up. I know the world.”
Equally contradictorily, it is often the memoirist’s own family who object that the memoir is not true -- even calling the publisher to rat out the writer -- but they are equally opposed to anyone writing the truth about that person or that family. They don’t want to be seen as wicked, but neither do they accept the idea of being banal. They seem to need cover of some kind -- a “cloak of virtue.” “We’re just like everyone else, but in a superior way.”
Book Daddy (website) says that the moral sticking point about memoir is that people will pay MUCH more for a memoir than for a novel or even for a “factual” documented autobiography. His implication is that all this fakery comes simply from the desire to make more money. It is a venal marketing ploy. This certainly applies to the books that are “packaged” by publishers' teams pretending to be, say, an ethnic teenaged girl and paying someone to pretend she wrote a book largely assembled by plagiarizing parts of earlier books. Not much seems to happen to those culprits.
The NPR program suggested that there are legal issues in pretending to be someone that one is not. Certainly we seem to be obsessed with the idea of “real ID” and NAIS, which means numbering all the domestic animals so they can be traced. We seem to think that tells us something, makes us safer. as though the tricky world were out to get us through deception which we could eliminate if we just had everything in a database. The media uncovers one example after another of deceptive advertising. We worry about identity theft. Is that what a false memoir is? Identity theft? Even if the purported author doesn’t exist and never did?
But the people involved seem to think of their stories as more like Sim City, an avatar that might be more like their true selves than what one sees in this concrete world. So why can’t we accept that? Why can’t we accept something like a dream life, an inner truth of the soul? Especially if it sells well!
There is something parallel in the Christian world which is based on four gospels that don’t agree with each other, so that Gary Wills has to explain how it is that they are NOT false memoirs, since so much is built on the assumption that they are literally true, at least in the more naive Christian circles. If they aren’t big T, True, is anything True? Only Unitarians like the idea of a lot of little t truths running around loose! (That’s a joke. Actually, they are prone to Big T Truth, they just choose different ones.) And then science keeps telling us all this weird stuff about how solid objects are really assemblages of whirling atoms and our bodies, our very identities, are produced by four molecules wrapped in a double-helix. All this confusion has got to be STOPPED! And the feeling seems to be that the place to stop it is the false memoir. Forget global warming!
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on Native Lit “first person” stories. Take these two examples: Richard Lancaster wrote “Piegan,” an account of his relationship with Old Jim Whitecalf (now “gone on ahead”) that is presented as an accurate journal/memoir but doesn’t ring true to me. (Lancaster is dead, I’m told.) Adolf Hungry Wolf (living) also wrote about his relationship with Old Jim Whitecalf. Adolf is a far more exotic character (a white man who married an Indian and lives in the old Indian way) but in my opinion he’s telling the truth. Yet “Piegan” is the book that won the prizes and Adolf is the one constantly accused of being a pretender.
To complexify the issue even more, Jim Welch’s early books about a young man on the Fort Belknap reservation, “Winter in the Blood” and “The Death of Jim Loney,” are true-to-life stories with touches of magic realism that are consistently taken to be autobiographical, which they are not. So far as I know, Jim never wrote an autobiography, though his cousin Sidner Larson did. (“Catch Colt,” published by the U of Nebraska Press.) Jim is “gone-on-ahead;” Sid is still a living college professor in Iowa. How is anyone who doesn’t live here supposed to figure all this out?
It appears to me that as readers we have two courses of action, neither of which we will probably take: a gnostic tolerance for good stories, regardless of whether they can be factually verified; or a Dragnet insistence on “just the facts” verified by documents, interviews, and certifying bodies. I suspect that what we really prefer is to muddle along, guessing, playing hide-and-go-seek. As Richard Little Dog used to say when we asked him if something were true, “Could be.”
People were once very curious about what was on the back of the moon and proposed cities, strange beings, evidence of mystic doings. When the satellites finally managed to get back there and take a look, the mysterious back looked pretty much like the well-known front. A disappointment. Or was it a relief?