Daniel Dafoe's Robinson Crusoe was, as we say today, "based on a true story": the ordeal of Alexander Selkirk, shipwrecked on an island off the coast of Chile for five years. In fact, when the book first appeared in 1719, the public believed it was a true story and Crusoe an actual person. Credulous readers could be excused on the ground that they were experiencing a new genre. Fiction, until this time, had taken the form of legend, myth, and epic poetry: Realistic, book-length fiction was unknown, or otherwise known as "lying."
Now we know the difference. Or do we? The last several years have seen a number of publishing scandals where a purported true story-or even a purported author-was shown to be either complete fabrication or shameless embellishment. Two fakes recently revealed their true colors.
Misha: a Mémoire of the Holocaust Years, by one Misha Defonseca, is the tale of a young Jewish girl who began a harrowing trek from Brussels in 1941, searching for her deported parents. The story stretches credulity, even without the part about being briefly adopted by wolves in the forest, and Misha has been challenged ever since its publication in 1997. But the author herself only confessed this year. Monique De Wael (her real name) was a student at a Catholic school in Belgium during the years she described. The story "is not actually reality, but my reality." And yes, she's not technically Jewish, but she "feels Jewish."
Fabrication No. 2 is Love and Consequences, the recollection of Margaret B. Jones, a foster child of mixed race brought up by a black family in South Central Los Angeles. Tragedy stalked her drug-infested, bullet-ridden girlhood until Margaret got a grip, earned a college degree, and became a writer. But beware success: An admiring profile in The New York Times caught the attention of the author's sister, who informed the Times that Margaret's last name is really Seltzer, and her background is middle-class Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Both these stories combined did not earn nearly the column inches of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, chosen for Oprah's Book Club and vaulted to best-sellerdom in 2005, only to crash on the revelation that his addict's odyssey was true only in the barest outline. Besides the obvious moral of Don't Mess With Oprah, what's wrong with fiction published as fact?
Not much, some say: "Reality" mémoirs are on the same order as "reality" TV, as long as one mentally maintains the scare quotes. Even a nonfiction writer cuts and shapes the facts to make a work of art.
But the facts were skimpy at best. Why didn't "Misha" and Margaret try to sell their stories as fiction? Because mémoir sells better. Real-life readers are inspired by a real-life story of overcoming horrible circumstances; they love applauding the heroine after vicariously wallowing in her misery. Silly them: As a Times blogger archly observed, "We earnest Americans, raised to value hard work and plain talk, will always choose faux authenticity over real artifice."
Will we? Then why do "earnest Americans" feel cheated when authenticity proves faux? One mark of a mature human-say, someone old enough to read books reviewed by the Times-is the ability to make distinctions between artifice and distortion, truth and "truthiness," shaping and flat-out fabrication. Granted, that line is sometimes shady, and our faux detector can be short-circuited. But we still know that a woman who claims to have been succored by wolves should have at least been sniffed curiously by them, and another woman who recalls a childhood in South Central L.A. should have some actual experience of the neighborhood.
Reality is something we can all gather around and put our hands on-even though, like the blind men and the elephant, we will have wildly various interpretations. To learn that a "mémoir" is actually a novel is like learning that the elephant is really a rock.
Reality is a noun, not an adjective. And it doesn't come with scare quotes.
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