Memoir, autobiography, fact fiction: What’s the diff?

I ran across this article, which raises some interesting literary questions.

How do we differentiate between:

Memoir
Autobiography
Autobiographical fiction
Roman a clef
Nonfiction novels

…and do we need to?

Frankly, I don’t care which genre a work falls into, but it is vitally important to me to have a work presented in a “truthful” light, in terms of the relationship between the author and the content. This ties in with the concept of plagiarism: When authors present their work as one genre when it really is another, they are being fraudulent.

To take a recent example: James Frey and his Million Little Pieces was presented by him (and his publisher) as fact; we now know he took wholesale liberties with the truth. Thus, the book cannot be called a memoir. And it is a fraudulent presentation to the readership. His story, with his sad little embellishments (come on, did anyone really believe a dentist would administer root canal treatment with no sedation? Really!) would not have been as compelling if presented as fiction. But I do think his story without the pathetic dramatization would have been just fine as a memoir.

The lines are fine, but they are lines nevertheless. We need to differentiate between memoir (a particularized focus on memories, feelings and recollections) and autobiography (recalling one’s own life and times), between a roman a clef (telling the tale the way the author would have liked it to have gone) and autobiographical fiction (a novel based on the life of the author). Readers and writers need to be able to make the distinction between “fact” and “remembered fact”, “fiction” and “fictionalized biography.” Maybe some books straddle the line (is The Bell Jar autobiographical fiction, roman a clef, or both?), but even these books should be measured against some sort of literary parameters.

For some reason (perhaps the high premium we place on entertainment?), we are a society that tolerates the stretching of truth, misinformation, straw-man arguments, and plain old flying in the face of scientific fact – particularly in the guises of verbal arguments. Maybe we simply don’t have the critical faculty to be able to separate wheat from chaff. The James Frey affair, among other recent literary brouhahas, makes me think we still hold the printed word to a higher standard than we accept from our politicians or corporate executives. I think that’s a good sign. It’s a starting place, anyway.

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6 Responses to Memoir, autobiography, fact fiction: What’s the diff?

  1. charlotte says:

    Thanks for clarifying the difference between memoir and autobiography for me, LK. That makes sense really. I’ll be able to enlighten my friends at bookclub.

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  2. Shana says:

    Very well put! We need those fine lines of distinction to help inform our reading!!

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  3. danielle says:

    I had never really thought about the difference between memoir, autobiography and roman a clef (actually never really knew what the last one was). I do wonder how much is fact and how much is fiction. I know I remember so little about when I was younger–how do these authors remember so much detail unless they kept journals? I suppose history is sort of the same way…

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  4. Stefanie says:

    I think you are right, we need to have some delineation so readers have a basis for understanding and judgment. I think part of the problem with that encourages occasions like Frey, is that publishers and maybe a lot of readers, go for the entertainment factor and disregard all else.

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  5. Nonanon says:

    I too appreciated your handy run-down of the terms, as well as the link to this article, on this subject. It’s particularly talked about now because “creative” and “narrative” nonfiction is such a hot property. So I think the times and what’s selling probably influences a book’s genre/categorization as much as anything else. A case in point: I think if Norman Maclean’s superlative “A River Runs Through It” were published today, it would probably be as memoir, not as fiction. But that just wasn’t done then. I find the whole discussion very interesting, but at the same time, rather foreign to me. I usually take the rather bleak view that most people are lying to me anyway (that’s what working in customer service will do to you), so I can’t say I was all that shocked by James Frey, although I can also see a lot of merit in your point that printed works should be held to a higher standard.

    Then again, I WAS disappointed by the Frey affair…primarily because it was the first Oprah book I ever enjoyed reading!

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  6. litlove says:

    I don’t know the James Frey story, but I like the distinctions you draw, LK. I would just say though, that I had a grandmother who used to fictionalise her own life and believe it, to the point that my mother, who doesn’t know who her father was, has heard wildly different accounts from other people (my grandmother always refused to tell her anything about it). You’d think she might have had a clear memory of such an event, but whatever the truth was, she certainly reconstructed it.

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