Everything is fiction

Georg Oddner4

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.


4 thoughts on “Everything is fiction

  1. I read this immediately following a telephone conversation with my older brother wherein he started exploring the concept of “who am I?” Who we are to ourselves changes day to day and does not necessarily jive with who we are to others, depending on our relationships with them and whether we’ve just done them a favour or the opposite. He and I also experienced these same questions when our mother was declining with dementia and would sometimes forget who we, her children, were. It was very unsettling for me because, if my own mother didn’t know me, then did I entirely exist? A person’s memoirs are dependent on his memories, as you say, and those are ever changeable. The things I remember about myself, though, do not change me in the eyes of the law. If I can be picked out of a police lineup, if I continue to get a taxation notice from the government, then I exist. Point final.

  2. Interesting review g.
    yes a memory is subjective
    Even in science there is not truth but only models for esplaining that will be eaten by another explicative model etc ..;
    Glad to find you
    Love ❤

  3. My husband and I kept a journal together when we were first married–I was always amazed at how differently we wrote about shared events—especially the birth of our first child. After I sarcastically asked him who’s birth he was witnessing because it certainly the birth I was experiencing, he quit keeping a journal with me.

    • Is it wrong this made me grin?
      It’s too bad it never worked out; it would have been a very interesting document to look back on–like a novel or a film that alternates between character narratives. It would be interesting to keep it going without either party having access to each other’s entries. At least not for a decade or so.

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