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Truth in Memoir

Memoirs: the Novel Approach to Facts

Continued from page 1

Memoir, she concluded, "seems to be the most factually fudged genre of nonfiction writing". She quoted New York Times Book Review editor Charles McGrath saying that fabrications happen "all the time" in memoirs. Journalistic standards should apply, but frequently don't. A memoir should be as true as it possibly can be, said McGrath - and if not, the reader should be alerted to that fact.

Soon after, Salon published a reply from Gornick. "There is a vast misunderstanding abroad about how to read a memoir," she said. She was hurt that some observers had compared her to outright fabulists and "liars" such as Benjamin Wilkomirksi (the author of a fabricated Holocaust memoir) and Jayson Blair (the recently disgraced New York Times reporter).

"It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism," Gornick wrote. "What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand." In other words, the spirit of the experience is more important than the letter.

In the case of her own memoir, Gornick said, the heart of the story was the flash of insight that "I could not leave my mother because I had become my mother". Everything in the book was subordinated to that story - including its models in the flesh, herself and her mother.

It may well be true, as Gornick says, that there is a vast misunderstanding abroad about the nature of memoir as a literary artefact. And clearly memory is fickle and subjective. Two members of the same family will often disagree about the same event, and nobody can recall exact dialogue from an hour ago, let alone 30 years ago. But if the knowledgeable and sophisticated students at Goucher had trouble with Gornick's definition of truth in memoir, then how is the average reader to know what to take on trust?

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