Thursday, April 19, 2007

Fact vs. Fiction: The Hoax...

I loved this piece in The New Yorker--it's an interview with Clifford Irving, the writer on whom Richard Gere's new movie The Hoax is based. Irving "perpetrated the most intrepid publishing fraud of the modern era," as writer Jeffrey Goldberg put it, when he pretended to be writing an autobiography of Howard Hughes even though the two had never met.

I find literary and journalistic hoaxes quite fascinating. (If you've never seen Shattered Glass, add it to your Netflix list--it's riveting.) I simply can't imagine the anxiety one would feel about the possibility of getting caught (something that kept me out of a lot of trouble in high school), but I guess that's all part of the thrill--that Catch-Me-If-You-Can sense of adventure. Do these writers just want to see what they can get away with? (Irving, who is now with his sixth wife, also had extramarital affairs.)

I can't help but think of the also fascinating ongoing discussion of the memoir as a form, and the liberties authors may or may not take with facts in the name of entertaining writing. For instance the recent criticism of David Sedaris in The New Republic, after which the humorist received much love from the press. Or the fact that, not long after the James Frey incident, Augusten Burroughs' publisher placed a disclaimer on the back of his book Possible Side Effects. (Full disclosure: There's nothing I love more than a great memoir or collection of personal essays. Sedaris and Burroughs are two of my favorite authors.)

A few years ago at BEA, I saw memoirist Alexandra Fuller speak on her book Scribbling the Cat: Travels with an African Soldier. Fuller commented that both memoirists and novelists are often hit with the question, "Is this really true? Did this really happen?" Do readers on some level think there's always some fiction in the facts and some facts in the fiction?


Brian Mandabach said...

I do assume some fiction in fact and some fact in fiction. Since I'm not into biographical criticism, I'm not all that interested in the latter. What I want is a story that is real.

In the former, since memory is far from perfect, shouldn't readers assume that they are always reading a partially fictionalized account? Outright lying is another matter, but in most memoir and essay, the key is whether the truth reads as real. Something may have happened precisely as the author says, but if it sounds unbelievable coming off the page, I don't care about it.

AKA Jen said...

Shattered Glass, a definite MUST SEE!

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