The Ethics of Memoir

While it still competes for legitimacy in today’s literary scene, creative nonfiction, as a mode of writing, has gained significant traction since the early 2000s. According to Nielsen BookScan, which tracks book sales in America, total sales of memoirs increased 400-fold from 2004 to 2008.  In a time when conversational buzz has revolved around the death of the novel and the obsolescence of long-form writing, creative nonfiction has somehow bourgeoned and garnered a substantial readership.

While this development has pushed the boundaries and established new precedents for self-representation, it has also brought about a swath of questions regarding the ethics of writing creative nonfiction. Is it possible to be 100% truthful? If not, how can it be marketed as such? If not, what obligations does the writer have to storytelling integrity? Who determines what’s ethical, what’s not?

The first question that I should post is: what even qualifies as creative nonfiction? The first literary genre that comes to mind is probably the memoir—defined by Merriam Webster as both “a written account in which someone (such as a famous person or politician) describes past experiences” and “a written account of someone or something that is usually based on personal knowledge of the subject.” If it isn’t already obvious, the word “memoir” is etymologically related to the word “memory.” (Memoir is French for memory.) Creative nonfiction exists in many other forms besides the memoir—for example, humor essays (such as those by David Sedaris), journalism (for example, the pieces in The New Yorker by the amazing Susan Orlean), and even personal statements (to get into college nowadays, we all must engage in creative nonfiction in the application process).

Apart from its form, creative nonfiction differs from fiction in that there are deep and inevitable ethical considerations. We read nonfiction differently than fiction—we take more or less everything at face value. Reading a work of nonfiction is akin to listening to a trustworthy friend tell a story; you give them the benefit of the doubt, believe in the narrative logic and power of their elocution. When this trust between reader and writer is compromised—as in the case of certain books like “The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams,” a phony Navajo memoir by the American Indian Nasdijj, who is actually a twice-married Midwestern white man who publishes gay erotica, or the famed but entirely fabricated articles in The New Republic by Stephen Glass (which makes up the basis of the 2003 film Shattered Glass, starring Hayden Christiansen)—the consequences are severe and unforgivable. Stephen Glass created such a national scandal when his pieces were exposed as fake that he’ll have trouble finding any work for the rest of his life. (Recently, he’s having trouble being accepted by any law school.) The aftermath of these shocking revelations of lying are full of outcries, apologies, and then critics taking to the page to discuss the ethics, the impossibility of pure truth in the written word, etc. People are mad. Perhaps ashamed. And understandably, too—after all, they were duped.

This leads to a potentially troublesome point, which is that creative nonfiction doesn’t differ much from fiction in their shared drive, which is narrative. At the end of longwinded ruminations on the complications of such genres as memoir, the irrevocable fact is that a memoir can’t sell–won’t be read–unless it tells a story (and a good one, at that). And storytelling, as we know, involves exercising great reduction–conflating multiple people into a single character for the sake of storytelling simplicity; focusing on one angle of an experience and ignoring, or marginalizing, the rest; etc. And what counts as a good memoir, a good story, is generally the tragic–what some critically call “misery lit.” As William Zinsser discusses in “How to Write a Memoir,” from his bestselling book On Writing Well, memoirs since the 1990s have focused mostly on victimhood rather than forgiveness. We must wonder, then, the politics behind what’s worth sharing, what’s worth publishing, as a life-story.

Many memoirs in the 2010s have been published by young–or younger–writers, people who haven’t even reached middle-age. While many people scoff at such ambition, at the their gall to think that they’ve lived a life worth telling (and at the fact that many of these writers aren’t writers at all but rather personalities–such as YouTubers with subscribers in the millions–who use the form for publicity and profit), it’s also encouraging. After all, our individual stories have meaning, as small and private as they might be. Bizarrely enough, creative nonfiction can be a way to make sense of our own lives–it can give us clarity into who we are right now, how we arrived here, and why.

(The featured image is shattered glass as an allusion to the film of the same name and also a symbol of the fragility of truth in memoir.)



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