Does a Memoir Have to Be True? And More Questions to Be Raised in Porch Talk Friday

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James Frey didn’t just ruin Oprah’s Book Club when it was revealed that parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces were fabricated — he also exploded the genre of memoir.

Writer Emily Fox Gordon, a memoirist herself, will discuss the ins and outs of that type of situation with her Brown Bag, “Truth and Lies in Memoir.” Her lecture will be at 12:15 p.m. Friday on the front porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.

Gordon is the prose writer-in-residence for Week Four at the Chautauqua Writers’ Center. She is the author of multiple works, including Mockingbird Years: A Life In and Out of Therapy, Are You Happy?: A Childhood Remembered and her most recent work, Book of Days: Personal Essays.

Gordon’s Brown Bag was originally called “Save the Memoir!,” but in working on her lecture, she realized she wanted to focus on a new theme: the problem of truth and art in memoir.

As a memoirist, Gordon said she’s invested in investigating what she calls a “perennial problem” in the genre. She’ll discuss the recent history of fraudulent memoirs, including Frey’s.

“But then I’ll make a shift into talking about the problem of truth and lies in memoir, even when the memoirist is trying to be honest,” Gordon said.

It’s a problem she’s encountered in her own work, Gordon said. She’ll talk about her own experiences with the delicate balance the memoirist must tiptoe with their work.

“I’ve found that, to my horror, I’ve said some false things in memoirs,” Gordon said. “I thought I was being truthful, but I wasn’t. And I’ll talk about the deep conflict in memoir between the claims of truth.”

The memoir genre is based on a contract between the reader and writer, Gordon said. The memoirist is telling the reader that what they’re saying is true, she said, and telling the truth in a memoir can be a deep and subtle issue.

“If you’re really going to tell the truth entirely, you’re going to bore the reader to death,” Gordon said. “So it gets kind of dicey.”

Although her talk is inspired by the “guilty conscience” of the memoir writer, Gordon said she hopes there will be some laugh lines as well. Ultimately, she wants her audience to come away with a new way of thinking about memoirs.

“I hope it’ll bring them to a slightly more sophisticated reading of memoir once they understand this problem that is embedded so deeply in the genre,” Gordon said.


The author Ryan Pait

Ryan Pait gets a different haircut every summer to keep the people of Chautauqua guessing. This is his fourth summer at The Chautauquan Daily, so if you’re tired of him, that’s OK. He recently graduated with his master’s degree in literature from Western Kentucky University. Don’t ask him about what he’s doing after this summer, but do ask him about the Nicole Kidman renaissance, the return of “Game of Thrones” and what he’s reading.