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Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Novel or Memoir?

Last weekend, I attended a writers' conference, where I was asked to evaluate the book ideas of about 20 attendees. I listened while the writers read the "pitches" for their works-in-progress. Most were novels, but there were quite a few memoirs. I found myself telling some of the novelists that they should consider turning their novels into memoirs and telling some of the memoirists that they should consider writing novels. Why?

I can't say that there are any really invariable rules about why a story should be told as fiction or non, but we've all learned some things from the James Frey and other literary scandals of the past few years. If a story is too good to be true, then it's wise to put the words, "A Novel" on the cover. If you call it a memoir, but you've embellished a lot, you're mislabeling a product, and no consumer wants to be misled.

Sometimes a life story can be just too rich -- filled with too many characters or incidents -- to fit neatly within the category of "memoir. " Those stories can benefit from the kind of imaginative editing and reshaping that goes into creating a novel.

Readers will always be hungry for stories about the lives of others, whether they are real or invented. Sometimes the trick is discovering just what kind of story you are telling.


  1. A couple of days ago I was talking to an editor who said, "You know the French have a different attitude toward non-fiction than we do." He went on to say that he had spoken to a number of French writers and editors who said it is assumed there that books labeled "non-fiction" may well include a sizable dose of "embellishment," and that this is considered quite harmless. I can't personally vouch for the authenticity of this statement (maybe my editor friend was himself being a bit "French"!) but I pass it along for what it is worth.

  2. Interesting... As a reader, I'm really irritated by that blurry line.

  3. Another thing for writers to consider is their own strengths. A journalist friend of mine has written a novel that draws from her early childhood experience during the Holocaust. Her Polish parents left her in the temporary care of a Catholic family and then, forged documents in hand, got to England and finally to New York. Later, after several interesting twists and turns, the family was reuninted. I've read two full drafts and find the story far more compelling than the writing. My friend is a good writer, but her skills are being strained to be "literary." Kati Marton's "Enemies of the People," is a good example of how this sort of memoir can be successfully crafted: the writing is straightforward, nearly plain, but carries forward a truly fascinating, complex story. The writing doesn't get in the way. So, I guess as with any other creative endeavor, the writer should take his best shot.