Based on a True Story — Ripped from the Headlines — True Crime — A Startling Memoir… Reality, or any implication that a story is REAL is a huge selling point. We want, on a visceral level, to believe what we read.
Fake memoirs are strange phenomenon. Oprah Winfrey championed James Frey’s “memoir,” entitled “A Million Little Pieces,” until she realized it was a fraud. She’d been publicly conned — even humiliated — but it was her need to believe that his book was an inspiring memoir that drove the fraud as much as Frey’s ambition.
For me, the key point in the story of that particular fraud was when Frey talked about having tried to market the book as what it was — fiction. It was only after the manuscript was rejected, that he made changes and began the effort to sell it as a true story. What’s the “takeaway”? The standard for fiction is higher than for a memoir.
I remembered the “A Million Little Pieces” story when I read about the completely fraudulent Holocaust memoir “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years.” (See link to NPR story below) The story is obviously fiction — raised by wolves? People really bought that?
Every time I push the envelop on credibility, I keep Mark Twain’s famous quote about fiction in mind, “Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities. Truth isn’t.” What happened to the bullshit detectors at the publishing house? I guess they were out-of-order, lulled into a state of blissful sales projections by the lure of a fantastic tale. Had it been offered to publishers as fiction, it might have remained unpublished.
There have been many fraudulent memoirs and many, many works of fiction with elements drawn from memories. There are also memoirs that are not entirely factual as they emphasize the impressions and perspective of the memoirist. I think that’s a fundamental thing about memoirs — they are how the memoirist remembers the events as opposed to a strictly factual recounting with a perfect timeline.
Does that make such memoirs fake? Nope. But the Misha book, like James Frey’s bestseller, were deliberate fictions sold as the truth. They fall into the fake column. My question is this. Why do we get seduced by the fiction in the phrase — A Real Story?