By William Deresiewicz
Everybody always gets enraged when one of those sensational memoirs—I was a teenage transgendered prostitute; I was a part-white, part-Native American foster child in South-Central Los Angeles; I was fed through a concentration camp fence by a little girl whom I accidentally met again, and married, years later—turns out to be a hoax. But I always love it, because it demonstrates anew the irrepressibility of fiction.
The very idea of fiction is relatively recent. Traditional societies didn’t have it, and when it arose, couldn’t wrap their heads around it. Homer’s audience thought he was writing history. 2,500 years later, Robinson Crusoe was presented as a true story; no one would have cared about it otherwise. Only slowly through the 17th and 18th centuries did the notion emerge that a story could be meaningful without being factual, that between or beside truth and falsehood lies a third category, where something can be realistic without being real, referential without referring to actual events, believable without attempting to evoke belief. Paradoxically (or not), the concept of fiction solidified simultaneously with the emergence of science—that is to say, with the very idea of fact as we now understand it.
Now we live in the kingdom of fact: of information and the means to gather it, but also, more recently, of personal narrative and the means to disseminate it. Social media, webcams, YouTube (“Broadcast Yourself”)—but even before all that, the confessionality of daytime talk shows. Hence we’ve also come to live in the age of memoir. Fiction is still prominent but under increasing commercial and ideological attack (David Shields’s Reality Hunger (2010), with its pointed title, being the most obvious example of the latter). Just like Homer’s audience, and Defoe’s, people today want true stories.
And yet, it’s the damnedest thing. Fiction keeps on breaking out within the memoir itself. Memoir stakes its claim on factuality, which makes it so much easier to arouse emotion (“this really happened to me!”) but it still wants meaning—which is to say, pattern. And pattern—clarity, order, “neatness” in some sense or other—is what fiction gives us. I think of the lines from Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy”: “I was ten when they buried you. / At twenty I tried to die / And get back, back, back to you.” Though the poet did attempt to kill herself when she was 20, her father died when she was 8, not 10. But 10-20 is a lot neater than 8-20. 10-20 is a pattern. 8-20 is a mess.
I’ve written a memoir myself, but I prefer to read fiction. (My memoir is actually about reading fiction.) Memoir’s all the rage now, but fiction will be back. The New Journalism had its vogue, as well. But fiction will be back. We cannot do without it.
William Deresiewicz is an essayist and critic. His book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, which will be published in August, is based in part on his essays “The Disadvantages of an Elite Education” and “Solitude and Leadership.” To read all the posts from his weekly blog, “All Points,” click here.