Tuesday, June 24, 2008


There’s been plenty of ink given lately to the debate about an author’s “authenticity” in the context of the narrative they provide.

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).


D'Arcy said...

I think the stories obviously have merit on their own. If it was a story no one cared about, or wasn't good, people wouldn't even pay attention. I am sure several authors have fudged a little now and then. But, when this book comes out of nowhere and suddenly causes quite a stir...it's a different stir caused when the reader believes this really happened.

I know I read differently when I read fiction verses non-fiction. With fiction I have it in my head that it is a story, but with non-fiction--the people were REAL. I don't know if I can explain it, but it makes you think about humanity differently if you believe that it was real.

Then again, I learn many things from both genres. I guess we just don't like the author pretending to be something he is not (though most people pretend that all the time.)

A very interesting question. I can't wait to see what people have to say about it.

My advice--don't lie to Oprah...she'll find out and make life bad.

Gustav said...

Dear Paula

You pose an interesting question. "Author-thencity" complements your last post as well.

My view is on the side of the authors here. A novel should stand on its own regardless of the authenticity of the author.

In fact, the author, their background, what color they are or who they sleep with should be left out of the evaluation of the artistic merits of a work.

I am almost embarrassed when I hear people disparaging a painting by an artist like Picasso for his personal life, as if this is somehow has relevant to his art.

Emily Bronte is one of my favourite authors. During her time women authors received no respect, people would not read books written by women. She and her two brilliant sisters were forced to adopt male pseudonyms in order to get published.

Should we somehow discount their stories beacuse they sold their books as male authors?

Does this not violate the sacred "author- thenticity" that critics seem to be demanding today?

Not in my books. Lets give these brilliant and even not so brilliant writers some breathing room. What they do is very special and if they invent new parts of their personality, or who they are, its not my concern.

My focus is on Great Stories. The rest is just stardust.

BooksPlease said...

I agree with your statement - "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." I feel let down if it turns out to be fiction, but if I know it's fiction based on fact (however loosely) I don't mind at all.

I like Gustav's point about pseudonyms. I think an author's background and lifestyle shouldn't influence how I read a book. With the Brontes it makes it more interesting for me and sets the works in their time. So I suppose I am influenced after all.

Bec said...

I'm another one who agrees with Gustav. I also think the artistic merits of a work should be evaluated on their own. Certainly with regard to fiction anyway.

I really don't care if a piece of fiction is based on an author's actual experience or not (even if they've said it is). When I read a book I really inhabit the story, and it's all real for me anyway. Knowing something is based on the actual experience of the author wouldn't make it any 'more' real, meaningful, enjoyable - whatever - for me. But then, this is why I don't read disturbing stories....real or not...:P

Gustav said...

Dear Paula

If I may add one more thought to the conversation - are we perhaps sometimes getting too bogged down into putting stories into neat little definition boxes when it comes to stories?

For instance, most fiction has elements of real people that the author has met as well as facts about places and time.

Anyone who has written "non-fiction" or read it knows that personal interpretation, deciding which facts to include and exclude, all form part of the subjective lens used by the author. The end result is a mixture of fiction and non-fiction.

In fact my view is that there is no such thing as pure fiction or non-fiction and therefore lets ease up on our author friends and let them do what they do so beautifully; write Great Stories.

Paula Weston said...

Thanks everyone for your comments so far. It's such an interesting discussion, and I think the consensus so far is that a good story should speak for itself, regardless of the who the storyteller is, or isn't.

Gustav, I like your comment that there's no such thing as pure fiction. You're right: we all write from experience, influence and inspiration.

In fact, this discussion dove-tails very nicely into my next blog topic which I'll post in the next few days once this post has run its course.

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Paula,
My wife and I were discussing the Frey book just a few days ago. We both agreed that even though it was proven to be fiction, that ultimately that had little to do with our thorough enjoyment of a good story. One I would read again.
I also think that as there can perhaps be no such thing as pure fiction, its opposite can also hold true as well, a little embellishment in creating a hero, a love story, a sub plot. Why this has developed into people actually creating seperate personna's to promote their efforts is indeed interesting, and I would even suspect historically nothing new. My immediate guess would be money, or creating interest in getting published and promoted by well oiled machines. In any case an interesting and thought provoking post. Kia ora.
Ka kite ano,