I was reading an article about David Sedaris’ memoirs. It would seem very little of his “non-fiction” work is based in what we’d call truth. But, I thought to myself as I read, isn’t everything fiction?
Naturally, there are certain events that come with objective proof. Photography is a thing, I guess.* But memoirs are necessarily built on a subjective foundation. How often have we explored the past with a friend or sibling only to find their memory of a particular event is opposite to our own? And yet, we’d be foolish to think their memory less real.
The writer of the article, Alex Heard, reasonably objects to apparently purposeful deception: “[Publishers] knew that, in our time, nonfiction is bankable in ways that fiction is not… they milked the term for all its value, while laughing off any of the ethical requirements it entails.”
I’d say that’s fair. I’m not on board with trotting out the word “true” (loaded as it may be) if you know what you’re saying to be empirically false. I guess what I’m questioning is our classification of “memoir”; with neither the chronological nor factual demands of an autobiography, it is a thing built on impression, feeling, and personal myth. Calling this creature “non-fiction” is dubious at best. And if someone tells me a wonderful anecdote, if it shifts my perspective and it slanders no one, I will confess I have no desire to investigate its veracity.
A memory is not a fact. In fact, if quantifiable science has anything to say about it, a memory is nothing; it’s the memory of the last time you remembered. We are all unreliable narrators.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading.” When it comes to memoir, perhaps we ought to stop searching for the unicorn of objectivity. Its truth has little to do with the information it relays, but rather what it reveals to us about ourselves.
*Photography is rarely good proof of anything, either. Most documentation can be altered to suit any agenda.