Saturday, March 22, 2008

Attack on the Memoir?

There was a story the other day in the New York Times about a British writer who was not allowed to come into the United States, where he was going to attend an opening party for his new book, Dandy in the Underworld, which is a memoir.

I've not heard of this guy, Sebastian Horsely, before, though I'm not much for memoirs, which seem to have pushed the novel further into the background of the literary world. His work is about his experiences as a drug abuser and frequent user of prostitutes. He chronicles his trips to the Philippines, where a photographer took pictures of him being hung from a cross. (Buy the book, just in time for Easter! Good God, what has this world come to?) Presumably, that's where the image I found online and borrowed for this post came from.

Memoirs and memoirists have had some trouble the past couple of years -- especially in recent weeks -- and I couldn't help but wonder whether, in a way, this decision by the United States is a way to challenge whether Horsely really was telling the truth. What Horsely has that "Margaret Jones" didn't have was indisputable truth that he'd done these things -- at least the mock crucifiction. Jones's tale, while reportedly poignant and stunning, is not her personal experience. Ergo, not memoir. Thank you, try again.

Personally, I have no trouble with fiction. I love reading it and writing it. I believe most readers who say they prefer nonfiction because they want to read about what is real are simply lazy. They literally have not exercised their imagination. Shame on them. A good story -- especially fiction -- should feel real to a reader, otherwise there is no believability and ultimately the work will wither and die on the vine.

I'd like to believe that Margaret Jones, whose real name is Margaret Seltzer, could simply have converted the story to fiction. As the New York Times blog post suggests, that's not always easy. But at least it's honest.

As for Mr. Horsely, well, if I read the article correctly it said that he was trying to get into the United States without a visa -- which, reportedly, is still possible for British folks, as long as they haven't been convicted of a crime involving moral terpitude. Perhaps I'm reading it wrong. I'd have expected his publisher or agent to have checked into securing a visa, but the article is silent on that point.

I doubt I'll be reading about the book about the dandy. I can't relate to drug abuse and using prostitutes, and I don't care to live vicariously through him. I imagine he'll be in the United States eventually to sell another book. Or perhaps the next we hear of him, he'll be admitting that he made stuff up for his book. As he told the Time Out London, "It's better to be quotable than honest."


Carol D. O'Dell said...

As a memoirist, (I also write fiction and have published short stories) I find what's interesting is that neither Frey nor Seltzer have been accused of being a "bad" writer.

Most writers I know fear being ridiculed for being pretentious, mawdling, or sentimental. I still believe "truths" eek onto the page.

Ironically, I didn't have to lie or embellish, and darnit, I'm good at that! My story about bring my mother with Parkinson's and Alzheimer's home to live with and die at home--with my family and me is all true.

I think the trick is to LIVE something (in regard to memoir) and then write it. Hmmm.

~Carol D. O'Dell
Author of Mothering Mother: A Daughters' Humorous and Heartbreaking Memoir

available on Amazon

Matt Sinclair said...

Thanks for your comment, Carol! I agree with you. I certainly didn't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with the writing of memoirs, which has long been among the most popular of genres. A well written memoir can be and often is an excellent way to convey poignant truths of the human experience.

I hope that your book finds a warm, welcoming audience. Certainly, anything that can help people deal with the awful effects that those insidious diseases have on loved ones is worth promoting.

As for the abilities of Frey and Seltzer, your point is quite valid. If nothing else, their experiences show that strong writing -- whether in fiction or nonfiction -- retains the ability to influence audiences. A lack of authenticity, however, will quickly scare audiences away.