"You, as a reader, are a dope"

"Fresh Air" book critic Maureen Corrigan weighs in on Vivian Gornick's essay about using composite characters in memoir writing.

Published August 19, 2003 7:00PM (EDT)

Editor's Note: This letter is the latest in a series of exchanges Salon has published about fact and fiction in memoir writing:

"Confessions of a Memoirist": Acclaimed writer Vivian Gornick admits fudging the facts to a roomful of journalists. Did she exercise creative license -- or betray her readers?
By Terry Greene Sterling

"A Memoirist Defends Her Words": A response to critics who object to the use of composite characters in my writing.
By Vivian Gornick

Letters: What is a memoir anyway? Readers respond to Vivian Gornick's defense of her work.

- - - - - - - - - -

In my "Fresh Air" commentary on Vivian Gornick's talk at Goucher College I said her revelations there about concocting some scenes and conversations in her autobiography, "Fierce Attachments," left me disheartened. "Disheartened" because Gornick also reportedly told her audience that she'd kept her readers "willfully ignorant" of this device and, as one of those readers, I said I'd been moved by "Fierce Attachments" -- just as I'd been moved, on first reading, by Benjamin Wilkomirski's "Fragments" and by the work of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. The connection here is the sense of betrayal felt by a reader who's been encouraged to believe that a particular book is trying to be faithful to what actually happened and who then subsequently learns otherwise.

Gornick and I are in agreement that the person who writes the autobiography is not the same as the person who lives the life and that memoirs are works of literature -- I said so [on the program]. Where we disagree is on the issue of responsibility -- specifically the responsibility that a seemingly conventional memoir like hers has to its readers. Each and every autobiography instructs its readers on how to read it. Many famous autobiographies -- like Mary McCarthy's "Memories of a Catholic Girlhood" and Gertrude Stein's "Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas" -- intermingle fact and fiction, condense scenes, play with chronology, or otherwise acknowledge the indeterminacy of absolute truth that thinkers from Freud to Foucault have taught us is a defining condition of modernity. These autobiographies are explicit about their indirect efforts to capture experience on the page. Other autobiographies include a prefatory note stating that some scenes or characters have been fictionalized. But when the writer of a memoir or an autobiography doesn't provide one of these signals, readers tend to take her at her word: They assume she's forged her art out of a good-faith accounting of her life, as she honestly understood and remembered it. Yes, "what the writer makes of what happened," as Gornick says, will determine a work's power as art -- thus even a memoir found to be wholly fictitious can stand as an artistic creation. But "the truth," always imperfectly evoked, attaches readers to other lives actually lived across barriers of time of space, race and gender and attaches the writer to the genre's ancestral origins in Augustine's and Rousseau's outsized efforts to, however impossibly, wholly know themselves. In its steely unattainability, the truth demands either an acknowledgment from the autobiographer that it will be playfully deconstructed or a utopian determination to get it right, even if, inevitably, it turns out to be somewhat wrong. It adds insult to injury to be told by the autobiographer in question that, in accepting the conventional autobiographical contract that the writer is, indeed, trying to write the truth, you, as a reader, are a dope.

-- Maureen Corrigan, Book Critic, "Fresh Air"

By Salon Staff

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