The Frontal Cortex

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.

Comments

  1. #1 MattXIV
    March 28, 2007

    I think it is still valid to make the distinction. Someone who is writing serious non-fiction should be fact-checking their personal recollections against other sources whenever possible, even when writing about themselves.

  2. #2 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 28, 2007

    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:

    Those lines have been blurred at least since the time of Homer. Maybe next Frey can take on those fictionalizers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, or at least get their books moved to the fiction aisle at the book store.

  3. #3 Mustafa Mond, FCD
    March 28, 2007

    Oops, Heard, not Frey.

  4. #4 Rob Knop
    March 28, 2007

    My first reaction to the article was indifference. Does anybody really think that Sedaris’ stories are wholly accurate?

    I’ve seen Sedaris live. He gets lots of requests to talk about his brother. In one of the performances of his I’ve seen, he addressed that directly. He said, pretty much, that the “his brother” character that he talks about in his stories and essays is not really the same person as the real brother he has, although one is based on the other.

    I read an interview with John Malkovich about the movie “Being John Malkovich.” He said that, aside from the fantastic elements, the “John Malkovich” character in that movie was really a different person from the real John Malkovich, but he did the movie because he didn’t have a problem with that, and because he thought it was good bit of writing. (For instance, in real life he’s married, isn’t a friend of Charlie Sheen, etc. Not just the details, but the nature of the character was different.)

    Call it “contemporary historical fiction” or some such. I don’t really think that anybody honestly believes that the “Sedaris family” characters in David Sedaris’ books are exactly the real people. And while some of the stories have a greater or lesser basis in truth, I’m not sure that most people really accept them as true.

    As for the apologies — foo to that. I need to write my blog entry on the role of the licensed fool in modern society….

    -Rob

  5. #5 tekel
    March 28, 2007

    My first reaction to the article was indifference.

    That’s probably the correct response. Does anybody actually read Sedaris, outside of the Oprah-watching hoi-polloi? I don’t. If not, why the hell should anyone care what he writes or whether he calls it fiction or a textbook of algebra? If you’re buying books because Oprah told you to do it, you have much larger reality evaluation problems to deal with before you should be bothered to worry about whether it’s proper for Sedaris to mock his own mother in his febrile novels.

  6. #6 Mark
    March 28, 2007

    Jack Shafer at Slate.com also criticizes David Sedaris. His take is that part of the reason the stories are funny is that they are actual events, or presented as actual events. Should humor be held to a lower standard than nonhumor when both are presented as true?

  7. #7 karen
    March 28, 2007

    has the “reconsolidation” effect been gender tested? your examples are all male. It seems to me that it would be important from a evolutionary perspective for females to be better at more accurate memories, i.e.,health histories of their children, nutritional histories, etc.

  8. #8 Mark
    March 28, 2007

    I don’t know of any studies comparing memories of women and men for various things, but there is no reason to think that the process of remembering differs from one sex to the other.

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