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Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide

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How true does a memoir have to be? That question has been the basis of an ongoing debate kicked off by the revelation, five years ago, that much of James Frey’s bestselling “A Million Little Pieces” was made up.

Unfortunately, it has never been adequately answered. Commentators have tended to gravitate to oversimplifications: one side asserting that every word in a book sold in the non-fiction section of the store must be fact-checked and airtight, the other that “memoir” implies memory, which implies a not-the-truth-but-my-truth subjectivity bordering on carte blanche.

A better, more nuanced answer would recognize the complexity of the issue. Here’s a try: Inaccuracy is a problem in a memoir based on the extent to which it gets details as well as larger truths demonstrably wrong, depicts identifiable people in a negative light, fails to recognize the limits of memory, is poorly written, is self-serving, or otherwise wears its agenda on its sleeve. The more of these things it does and the more egregiously it does them, the bigger the problem is.

A rating system for memoirs

We decided to devise a way to apply these standards to the truthy aspects of memoir. Here’s the (half-facetious, but also half-serious) scoring system we came up with:

The charts below, analyzing some recent and not-so-recent memoirs, attempt to quantify the process; selected annotations have been added. Obviously, the charts themselves have a strong element of subjectivity, both in some of their metrics (especially E) and in the interpretation of the final scores. For us, a memoir “passes” if it scores 65 or more (the “Yagoda Line”). For others the threshold may be 40, or 80. In fact, such a notion of personal judgment is part of the point.

Clear-cut cases exist only on the extremes, the completely discredited “Love and Consequences” (that’s the one in which an upper-middle-class white author fabricated a childhood in the L.A. ’hood) on one end, Rousseau’s “Confessions” on the other. In the large middle, an informed reader has to make the call.

Interested in making a pre-emptive strike for truthy writing? Memoirists can use our convenient printable one-page PDF worksheet to evaluate their own work alongside some of the most famous and infamous examples in history.

Ben Yagoda is an English professor at the University of Delaware and author of “Memoir: A History.” He blogs at britishisms.wordpress.com. Dan DeLorenzo is a journalist, cartographer, infographics artist, photographer, painter and ping-pong enthusiast living and working on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.




8 comments

  1. Andrea Pitzer
    posted July 28, 2011 at 6:28 pm | permalink

    With this humorous analysis, Ben and Dan give us a list of priorities for how to keep memoir honest:

    –Get details as well as larger truths demonstrably right.

    –Watch out for depicting identifiable people in a negative light.

    –Acknowledge the limits of memory.

    –Do your best to write well and thoughtfully.

    –Monitor your motivation and push back on self-serving or agenda-ridden writing.

    In another post on this site, “The Line Between Fact and Fiction,” Roy Peter Clark boils the issue of truth-telling down to two main rules for journalists and nonfiction writers alike: “do not add” and “do not deceive.”

    There’s a lot more to his argument, and it’s worth reading. See the whole essay at http://bit.ly/nPRfx9.

  2. posted July 29, 2011 at 9:46 am | permalink

    Writing is all about math. The 2+2 of your argument must equal 4, or you have not done your work. Cooking the books is cooking the books, no matter if it’s writing or accounting. This is as brilliant as it is amusing. Long live the Yagoda line; let’s hope that few attempt to limbo under it.

  3. posted August 2, 2011 at 1:25 pm | permalink

    Very clever. It’s a shame we have to quantify integrity. The Frey case exploded when I was writing my own memoir, and I was sent into a panic because I couldn’t remember if the restaurant I referenced was Chinese or Vietnamese — I had said Chinese, but what if someone later proved it inaccurate?

    After a year of contemplation and taking advantage of my students to explore the issue, I decided there is only one rule for memoir: “To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.”

  4. Heather Bunch
    posted August 3, 2011 at 10:29 am | permalink

    What would be considered putting someone in a negative light? I’m writing stories about growing up with an outlaw biker (with bipolar disorder) and there are some stories of him doing bad things in there, but by the end of the story, hopefully, you see this human being – this father who loved his two little girls and did his best to care for them.

  5. posted August 4, 2011 at 11:44 am | permalink

    Oh come on…Sarah Palin wrote a memoir? Herself? Methinks we must return to list and add the false claim of authorship as a subtraction of, say, 90 point. Hmm?

  6. posted August 5, 2011 at 7:20 pm | permalink

    Useful article and funny. I am just about finished with writing a third person novella (my first) in the form of a series of short stories, with all names changed, but for those people that shared my live, characters are still very identifiable. I have not called it memoir, but fiction based on my life experiences. Would you think that lets me off the hook? I have tried not to place people in a negative light, although most of the stories are a disaster of some kind and characters are described, warts and all. I have researched my facts and have run some of the events by the participants. There’s a message in each story. There is however, much dialogue in it, written as from memory. My editor is telling me when the language is stale, stiff, unnatural or preachy, so I am still working on that and on parts that are not interesting.
    Thanks for sharing.

  7. posted August 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm | permalink

    In my mind, the only irremediable sin in memoir writing is not fessing up to your reader about what you’re doing on any given page…so acknowledge your memory is no doubt skewed by lasting hurt, say you’re imagining what the other person felt but did not say, share your regrets, admit your foibles, and the reader will stay with you. This is not rocket science.

  8. posted August 7, 2011 at 3:15 pm | permalink

    Interesting criteria. Personally, I don’t mind if a memoir wears its agenda on its sleeve – it makes it that much easier to spot and deal with. And making people look bad may be in bad taste, but I don’t really think it reflects on the quality of the memoir. Some people don’t like other people. That’s fine.

    I would take off the most points for bad writing and inaccuracies.

    I love the charts, btw!

12 trackbacks

  1. [...] Memoir’s Truthy Obligations – this is nice, on truth in memoirs and whether it matters. [...]

  2. by A rating system for memoirs « net eamelje on July 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    [...] rating system for memoirsBen Yagoda and Dan DeLorenzo have made a simple scoring system to judge memoirs.In their judgment of A Moveable Feast they were a bit too lenient, I reckon. [...]

  3. [...] Read the rest of the story here. [...]

  4. [...] rating system is reproduced below. And here’s the full link to his article, a collaboration with infographics artist Dan [...]

  5. by Rough Drafts on August 4, 2011 at 6:15 pm

    [...] truthy1An interesting PDF re-blogged from BREVITY who re-blogged it from this. [...]

  6. by Twitted by dogtrax on August 5, 2011 at 7:41 am

    [...] This post was Twitted by dogtrax [...]

  7. [...] So, recently Ben was at the Mayborn (literary nonfiction) Conference and gave a presentation that was part reality and part spoof. You can read all about it here: “Memoir’s Truthy Obligations.” [...]

  8. by The Memoir Police — Memories and Memoirs on August 6, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    [...] fun, go to the Nieman Storyboard, which is a great resource where you can read about the truth and lie debate, by the way, to see [...]

  9. [...] you’ve already seen the scale over at Nieman Storyboard for determining the “truth” (read: facts) of a memoir. If [...]

  10. [...] Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide | Nieman Storyboard [...]

  11. by » The right word is unfinished Studio Noshoku on March 7, 2012 at 2:30 pm

    [...] Memoir’s Truthy Obligations – this is nice, on truth in memoirs and whether it matters. [...]

  12. by justapinch.com on July 28, 2014 at 6:07 am

    justapinch.com…

    Memoir’s truthy obligations: a handy how-to guide – Nieman Storyboard – A project of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard…

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