Prompting the most recent spate of discussion has been the second book by James Frey, the American author who caused all sorts of strife for writing a best-selling memoir (Million Little Pieces) that turned out to be mostly fiction.
It raised the question that if a memoir writer is found to have fudged a few things here and there, does it mean the work is totally without merit?
This time around, he’s calling his new work (Bright Shiny Morning) a work of fiction, which begs the question why he didn’t reach for the fiction label the first time around.
When it comes to memoirs, I’m definitely in the camp of readers who required – and expect – the story to be based on the author’s actual experience. Former ABC journalist Sally Cooper has recently released A Burqa and a Hard Place, her memoir about years spent in Afghanistan training Afghans to become radio journalists. The story’s real power comes from the fact that the author is writing from first-hand experience.
Surely the better option for a writer like Frey is to pen fiction that is “semi-autobiographical” (such as Helen Garner’s moving new novel The Spare Room – more on that in future a post) rather than marketing a story as memoir, only to find out there have been certainly liberties with the truth. The former at least piques the reader’s curiosity as to which bits are “real”.
But can the same measuring stick of authenticity be used for fiction?
A classic example is The Hand that Signed The Paper, a remarkable debut novel by Australian writer Helen Demidenko, which took out the Miles Franklin Literary Award and Australian Vogel Literary Award in 1995.
At first, the controversy surrounding the novel was based on the story itself: how Ukranian peasants became merciless tools of the Nazis during World War II and turned on those who previously persecuted them. It was deemed particularly powerful because the author claimed to be of Ukranian descent.
When it turned out Demidenko (whose real name was Darville) had completely fabricated her cultural background and connection to people involved in the war, the literary world turned on her with incredible savagery.
Thirteen years after the controversy, I picked the book up and read it for the first time last week. I found it to be a confronting view of genocide from the perspective of the perpetrators, but far from making excuses for them, it presented a powerful morale about how hate breeds hate - regardless of cultural background or religious creed.
Demidenko/Darville’s narrative voice is impressively strong for a debut novelist, across a range of characters, and while the brutality is wearing by the novel’s end, the story is told unflinchingly and – it seems – with intentional coldness.
From the first page, the author makes it clear The Hand That Signed the Paper is a work of fiction. Why then was the literary world so enraged that she invented an identity for herself that helped market the book? Was the book only deemed to have award-winning merit because of her supposed ethnicity?
Critics (including those speaking out before her “unmasking”) point out apparent historical and factual errors in the work, and this, at least, is a warranted criticism if the author was selling the novel as “faction”.
But what does this mean for the power of the story itself and the questions it asks about hatred, violence and war?
I’d like to pose the question: is the merit of a fictional story contingent on the author’s life experience and “authenticity” or can you judge a story on its own merits? Or is this too simplistic a view of the role of fiction?
(And I apologise for the title to this post … I couldn’t help myself).