In which a group of graying eternal amateurs discuss their passions, interests and obsessions, among them: movies, art, politics, evolutionary biology, taxes, writing, computers, these kids these days, and lousy educations.

E-Mail Donald
Demographer, recovering sociologist, and arts buff

E-Mail Fenster
College administrator and arts buff

E-Mail Francis
Architectural historian and arts buff

E-Mail Friedrich
Entrepreneur and arts buff
E-Mail Michael
Media flunky and arts buff

We assume it's OK to quote emailers by name.

Try Advanced Search

  1. Seattle Squeeze: New Urban Living
  2. Checking In
  3. Ben Aronson's Representational Abstractions
  4. Rock is ... Forever?
  5. We Need the Arts: A Sob Story
  6. Form Following (Commercial) Function
  7. Two Humorous Items from the Financial Crisis
  8. Ken Auster of the Kute Kaptions
  9. What Might Representational Painters Paint?
  10. In The Times ...

Sasha Castel
AC Douglas
Out of Lascaux
The Ambler
Modern Art Notes
Cranky Professor
Mike Snider on Poetry
Silliman on Poetry
Felix Salmon
Polly Frost
Polly and Ray's Forum
Stumbling Tongue
Brian's Culture Blog
Banana Oil
Scourge of Modernism
Visible Darkness
Thomas Hobbs
Blog Lodge
Leibman Theory
Goliard Dream
Third Level Digression
Here Inside
My Stupid Dog
W.J. Duquette

Politics, Education, and Economics Blogs
Andrew Sullivan
The Corner at National Review
Steve Sailer
Joanne Jacobs
Natalie Solent
A Libertarian Parent in the Countryside
Rational Parenting
Colby Cosh
View from the Right
Pejman Pundit
God of the Machine
One Good Turn
Liberty Log
Daily Pundit
Catallaxy Files
Greatest Jeneration
Glenn Frazier
Jane Galt
Jim Miller
Limbic Nutrition
Innocents Abroad
Chicago Boyz
James Lileks
Cybrarian at Large
Hello Bloggy!
Setting the World to Rights
Travelling Shoes

Redwood Dragon
The Invisible Hand
Daze Reader
Lynn Sislo
The Fat Guy
Jon Walz


Our Last 50 Referrers

« Peripheral Artists (3): Valentin Serov | Main | Ignorance and Bliss »

January 30, 2006

Fake Memoirs

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

Fake memoirs are getting to be a big deal. In fact I am figuring to set myself up as a feke memoirist. It's a growth industry.

I got support from an unexpected place over the weekend: the DVD of Beyond the Fringe . In one sketch, Peter Cook addresses this issue of fake memoirs, in a roundabout sort of way.

He does a monologue playing the part of a miner having a hard time getting anyone to pay attention to his memoir of working in the mines. Frustrated, he stumbles across a very simple literary device: the naked lady. Lo and behold, he finds interest in his mining memoir is piqued considerably with the addition of a naked lady, dancing down in the mine. And a simple addition it is: every now and again he has only to add a sentence like “meanwhile, the naked lady continued dancing”.

In time, he figures if one naked lady is good, more must be better, so the next thing you know he has a million naked ladies wandering in a desert, until they come across a mine, which they then enter and dance.

By now you may have guess the title to Cook’s memoirs: A Million Dancing Ladies. Does this make Frey a plagiarist in addition to a fabricator?



PS. While Beyond the Fringe has been available in audio form for some time, it is new to DVD. If, like me, you like Brit wit and are interested in the early sixties--post-beat but pre-hippie--you really ought to track it down. Like a lot of cultural product from that era, it's simultaneously dated and up-to-date.

posted by Fenster at January 30, 2006


Peter Cook's book at least sounds funny. It cracks me up to hear these literary types (a college prof who was recently quoted comes to mind) saying that the intent of memoirs is to evoke a mood, and allowances have to be made for memory, and "it was correct in terms of his emotional memory, if not in terms of the facts."

Really?? So it was pretty much OK for Nixon to deny he ever covered anything up in his "memoir" because, after all, it was correct in terms of his emotional memory! And Hitler's "memoirs" would certainly have been illuminating!

Our "A Million Little Pieces" friend apparently spent one night in local jail for a DUI and turned it into three months in prison...just to be true to his emotional memories? Or maybe his bank account?

I would prefer a "memoir" to stick a least slightly closer to something that actually happened, or else just call it, ahem, "fiction". And add some dancing naked ladies!

Posted by: annette on January 30, 2006 4:34 PM

Without going into too much detail - 'cause I'm honestly not that interested - could someone tell me how Bush gets blamed for this? I've seen James Frey's name included on a few lists of the usual Republican villains (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al.), and I'm vexed as to how it got there.

Was he held up as some kind of Red State posterboy? Or is this a repeat of the 'nineties Clinton Dementia, when right-wingers blamed every incidence of sexual deviancy on Bubba's White House indiscretions?

I think it's time to watch this again.

Posted by: Brian on January 30, 2006 4:40 PM

"Our Million Little Pieces friend apparently spent one night in local jail for a DUI and turned it into three months in prison"

Not even a full night. He was bailed out after a few hours.

Posted by: Peter on January 30, 2006 9:14 PM

Over on the Western Literature listserv, which is mostly college professors and the like, we've had a raging argument going over memoir vs. autobiography vs. personal journalism vs. creative nonfiction vs. invented narrative. It's pretty clear that the categories aren't keeping up with the phenomena and that categories aren't that helpful anyway. The content escapes them.

The most emotional argument is about the anecdote that begins Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek." Dillard has confessed that the story about the cat that jumps in the window with blood on its feet from a night of killing and prints her bare chest with roses was originally from one of her student's papers -- with his permission. One person feels totally betrayed. Others point out that she was NOT writing memoir.

The story of the moment that I've been following is Nasdijj, a writer of gay leather porn who purported to be a half-Navajo who grew up in misery and now says he tries to save young minority boys who suffer from AIDS and FAS. He has won prizes for "The Boy and His Dog are Sleeping" and other books, including porn. There's been enough publicity to establish who he is, but not enough to find him and the boys he claims to be saving. He's still blogging: Earlier last year he was pretty obscene and outrageous -- frontally attacking women in publishing -- now he's more conventional but no less defiant.

A million naked ladies are one thing but a dozen naked boys are another.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on January 30, 2006 11:40 PM

I've taught a class on literary memoir, and find these controversies very interesting. If you took all categorizing/identifying info off and gave someone a memoir and a novel, and asked them which was which, they would be hard pressed to tell the difference -- there really are no technical differences between the two. Both can have first-person narrators, both tell the story of a life, etc. etc.

What makes memoir/autobiography different lies not in the book itself but in an interaction between the writer and the reader -- something that's been called the "autobiographical pact" -- the writer offers the book to the reader as the truth of his/her life, and the reader says in return, "Okay, I'll accept this and read it as truth." We don't make this pact with fiction. So since what characterizes memoir as memoir lies not in the writing itself but in the writer/reader agreement, when that agreement is broken, when the story is discovered *not* to be the truth of that person's life, readers feel ripped off. If the same book had been presented and read as fiction -- no problem. No issue.

This pact is extremely strong -- in Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, he really plays with this idea. In a number of ways, he conveys to the reader that this is *not* a memoir, but in other ways he strongly signals that it *is* (main character is named "Tim O'Brien," book is dedicated to guys in his company who have the same name as guys in the book, etc.). Readers want so strongly to believe that it's true that they are shocked and unwilling to accept when they find that certain things in the book really are fiction, just as O'Brien said they were. But since one of his main themes has to do with the nature of truth, the ambiguity suits his purposes fine. (Great book, BTW, if you haven't read it.)

I really enjoy controversies over these books --

Posted by: missgrundy on January 31, 2006 12:03 PM


I wonder if Fenster isn't suggesting something really useful: this whole half-a-novel/half-a-memoir thing has become so widespread that maybe the time has come to give it its own category. Make it a genre, along with its own genre-name. After all, why *shouldn't* people write (and enjoy)super-heightened yet semi-reality-based stuff? I've enjoyed a lot of Mailer, Wolfe, and Kapuscynski that qualifies. As long as Miss Grundy's compact with the reader is relatively clear and well-understood, what's the harm?

Any contenders for a name for this genre?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 1, 2006 12:09 PM

You could call it a novoir, which I believe is far better than a memel! Unfortunately, the literary world would call it something pretentious like memoiristic lit.

I think Miss Grundy's point is crucial: breaking the honesty pact with the reader makes the reader feel used and lied to, like you played them for a fool, and it sorta breaks the spell, as they say. I have no problem with fiction written in first person, like a memoir....just call it fiction!

Posted by: annette on February 1, 2006 2:22 PM

aqknqoaqr bmwaen

Posted by: Francis on February 27, 2006 11:20 PM

Post a comment

Email Address:



Remember your info?