Kevin Young in VQR:
Memoir is a form under siege. In the small-print preface to Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity (2008), Kerry Cohen inadvertently indicates what’s wrong with the memoir today: This book is a work of nonfiction. I have changed most names and identifying details. I have also, at times, combined certain characters to allow for narrative sense. I have tried to recount the circumstances as best I remember them, but memory can be a faulty device. Facts are important but I believe that even more important than the facts is truth. I trusted truth to guide me as I wrote. Jack Kerouac once said, “Every-thing I wrote as true because I believed what I saw.” So it is for this book.
Such prefatory notes, indicating the degree of fiction found in its pages, have become necessary in the wake of James Frey’s best-selling blowout, his come-to-Oprah moment when he revealed what careful readers suspected: Much of his so-called nonfiction was made up. If Frey’s televised admission in 2006 was a kind of religious confession, then the real penance has been paid ever since by the memoirists who followed, for whom fact-checking has become a ritual purification—and the disclaimer a Hail Mary pass resulting, they hope, in brisk sales, the modern measure of success.
Truth is the goal of the memoir—or at least of its preface. Such authenticating devices are ways of gaining trust in a distrustful world. And yet such a disclaimer comes up against the problem encountered by a fabricator coming clean: “To tell you the truth, I am a liar.” The liar’s paradox has become the memoirist’s mantra, indicated by Loose Girl’s strategic separation of facts from truth; and its declared reliance on memory as recreated facsimile rather than on a strict recounting of verifiable events. Like Mary Karr’s Liars’ Club (1995) and Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception (1990), two books that helped jump-start the memoir form, even the titleLoose Girl seems to play with the notion of truth interrupted. This is not to say that these three memoirs are false. Rather, as indicated by their very titles, books such asThe Liars’ Club and The Duke of Deception discuss family members who are con artists in ways large and small that the memoir form has proven well suited for.
You could say the memoir is a promiscuous form. The novel, the memoir’s direct antecedent, is omnivorous—it is a form that cannibalizes other forms, from letters to hymnals to confessions themselves. The confusion the memoir has caused is actually one over form—for despite what its recent practitioners seem to think, the memoir is a form, not a genre. In trying to expand the memoir from a form into a genre rather like the broader field of nonfiction, the authors of memoir often mistake its strengths—hard facts ennobled by the fluid, specific act of memory—as something not to be championed but chiefly ignored. As a result, instead of flirting with fiction, as almost all writing does, the memoir flirts with the truth.