Thursday, January 8, 2009

When a Story's Too Good to Be True...

We fiction writers have enough trouble as it is trying to elbow into an already crowded marketplace. It's not enough that seemingly dozens of new novels of all genres come out every week, and each of us tries to find ways of standing out from the crowd. Now we also have to compete with writers of memoirs, those supposedly factual accounts of interesting and dramatic lives. These days, it seems that memoir writers aren't about to let facts stand in the way of a good story.

The most recent case of memoir-as-fiction is that of Herman Rosenblat, a 78-year-old holocaust survivor whose "Angel at the Fence" was scheduled for February publication. It tells how Rosenblat, a teenager in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, developed a friendship with a girl living near the camp who smuggled him food over the fence. Years later in New York, he had a blind date with a woman who was, yes... that same girl...and they married.

Great story, except not true. Skeptics started punching holes in it, including the fact that the girl never lived near that particular camp. After the house of cards fell in on Rosenblat, the publisher canceled the memoir. This is not an isolated case.

James Frey's 2005 memoir, "A Million Little Pieces," turned out to be less-than-factual. And last year's "Love and Consequences," by Margaret B. Jones, the memoir of a mixed-race girl growing up in South Central Los Angeles as a foster child running drugs and hanging out with gang-bangers, was total fiction. The author: real name, Margaret Seltzer, is white, grew up in the upscale Sherman Oaks neighborhood of L.A., and attended a private day school. She has since confessed the book was a fabrication.

Cut it out now, memoir writers! You're giving fiction a bad name. Leave it to us to come up with bizarre characters, convoluted plots, and improbable denouements. It's what we do.

Robert Goldsborough

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