In a recent issue of The New Republic, Alex Heard takes David Sedaris to task for blurring the line between memoir and novel, fiction and non-fiction, truth and lies:
I do think Sedaris exaggerates too much for a writer using the nonfiction label. And after spending several weeks fact-checking four of his books–Barrel Fever (1994), Naked (1997), Me Talk Pretty One Day (2000), and Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim (2004)–I’d recommend that he issue Oprah Moment apologies to a few people, including all the unclothed frolickers at the Empire Haven nudist camp in the summer of 1996; platoons of women who are stereotyped as harpies, hicks, or sluts; and the ghost of his mom, who usually was one-dimensionalized into a sarcasm-dispensing cliche.
It’s not exactly a James Frey style takedown, but Heard does catch Sedaris in some uncomfortable untruths. My first reaction to the article was indifference. Does anybody really think that Sedaris’ stories are wholly accurate? He’s a comic, not a biographer. I always assumed that his memories had been artfully adapted: that’s why they were funny.
But the underlying premise of the article – that “true” memories can be neatly separated from “dishonest” memories – isn’t particularly meaningful, at least from the perspective of the brain. Neuroscience now knows that every time we remember our memories they are “reconsolidated,” slyly remade and reconfigured. The act of remembering requires protein synthesis because we are literally remaking our past, altering the cellular connections that define the original memory trace. (Freud called this process Nachtraglichkeit, or “retroactivity”.) I’ve written about reconsolidation before.
The idea of reconsolidation should make us distrustful of our memories. They do not directly represent reality. Instead, they are an imperfect copy of what actually happened, a Xerox of a Xerox of a mimeograph of the original photograph. The more you remember something – and writers like Sedaris live inside their past – the less honest and real and accurate your memories become. That’s just the nature of our brain. When critics try to draw sharp distinctions between non-fictional memoirs and novels “inspired by true events” they end up indulging in a false view of memory.
Proust, as usual, said it best:
“How paradoxical it is to seek in reality for the pictures that are stored in one’s memory…The memory of a particular image is but regret for a particular moment; and houses, roads, avenues are as fugitive, alas, as the years.”
My solution is simple. Rather than divide our bookshelves into somewhat arbitrary categories based upon declarations of “truth”, we should have a general category of books devoted to “memory”. These can be memoirs that invent dialogue or novels based upon remembered events. It doesn’t matter. As long as the book is fitted into this generic “memory” category, we know it will be an artful blend of fact and fiction, truth and lie. That, after all, is what a memory is.