As the aspiring fiction writers among us know, novels (and certainly short stories) do not sell as well as non-fiction. This, as much as anything, explains the rise of the memoir in recent years. Memoirs share many things with novels — narrative reflection, dialogue — but because they’re “true” they’re easier to market.
This also explains (at least somewhat) the anger at memoirs that seem to stretch the truth. Marketing an untrue story as a memoir isn’t only literary fraud, it may very well be financial fraud — given that more people are likely to buy a supposed true story.
But why is this the case? Is it so obvious that truth makes a story better?
These are the questions I ask in my latest column for the Jerusalem Post.
It’s an interesting concept. More people will spend more money for true stories than they will for fictitious ones. Truth has literary value – something I never quite understood. Don’t facts constrain? Why would a genre limited to the historical be more interesting than a genre with access to the infinitude of the imagination?
I write this in reference to Ken Dornstein’s remarkable memoir The Boy Who Fell Out of the Sky, which tells the story of Ken’s amazingly quirky — and troubled — brother, David, who was killed in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am 103. My thoughts on the truth/fiction questions?
David seems too complex and too idiosyncratic to be real. But he was real. We have his writings to prove it. And so instead of evoking wonder at an author’s capacity to create, David, the character, evokes wonder at the depths and possibilities of humanity. That’s what memoirs can do, that novels can’t. Truth, apparently, is the one thing that can make a perfect story better.
Interestingly, I was in the offices of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education recently and there, on the wall, was a picture of David Dornstein, who had worked at CAJE during the day while trying to churn out literary greatness at night. In fact, David went with CAJE to Israel, where he ended up staying and living in Tel Aviv for a while. He was on his way home from Tel Aviv, via London, when his plane exploded over Lockerbie.
All of this is, of course, tragic and sad, but the CAJE photo was so striking because it — perhaps unintentionally — relates David’s intense idiosyncrasies. In the staid offices of this Jewish educational organization is the smiling David — bare-chested.