Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Isn’t the story the important thing?

After reading Ishmael Beah’s account of his time in Sierra Leone, A Long Way Gone: The true story of a child soldier, I began looking through the internet for more information about him and where he is now. In this search I came upon this article (oh, and here's another one) in The Australian, calling Beah out for mistakes in his book. I also found this blog, which questioned Beah’s use of quotations and dialogue within the book. And it got me to thinking: How accurate does a memoir really need to be?

A memoir, as its name denotes, is based on memory, therefore I don’t think an author is expected to get every date and age correct. I think this is especially true when the author is displaced from his homeland and has lost every record of who he was before writing the book. If the only record he has to go off is his memory then I can see how some mistakes could have been made. For instance, him writing that he was 13 when he joined the Sierra Leonean army, when The Australian would put his age more around 15, does not surprise me. I make similar mistakes all the time when I’m thinking back on things, and can only get it correct when I actually get out my old journals or look through back entries in my blog, then do the math. I fully believe Beah would have used those tools to double-check his age as well, had he had them available to him. Although I haven’t talked to the author directly, I’m pretty certain he did not have a journal with him as he was walking around killing RUF soldiers.

I think it’s interesting that this is coming into question, when I have read a number of other memoirs that have glaring errors. A specific author that comes to mind is Augusten Burroughs, who gives two different ages for his first sexual interaction in two different books. In Running With Scissors, I believe he put his age around 12, while in Dry the age is significantly lowered to age 8 (I don’t have the books with me so I can’t verify these ages, but I remember specifically that it bothered me at the time I read them). Perhaps the media didn’t notice these mistakes because they didn’t read the books in direct succession as I did, but the mistakes were there. And Burroughs claims to have journal records dating back to his early childhood so surely he should have gotten this correct?

As for the quotes brought into question by One-Minute Book Reviews, I have often asked myself about quotes in memoirs. I have also had a number of discussions with other journalists on what type of creative license is allowed for quoting in novels, memoirs, etc. The thing is, it’s not an autobiography. Very few people, especially your normal everyday person, has enough newspaper print spent on them that they can actually quote what other people have said and done regarding them. Their lives are not lived out in the newspapers and tabloids, despite what the media would have us believe. Yes, Beah could have easily left out the dialogue in his book, but then how exciting would that have been to read? This is his account of what happened to him and what the war was like in Sierra Leone. I have no doubt in my mind that he witnessed the atrocities he wrote about in this book and I will give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to giving an account of those things from memory.

What I think is important to remember here is that it’s the story that matters. No, I don’t think authors should go around writing fiction and try passing it off as a memoir (Ahem), but I think we should allow a little leeway when it comes to writing something from memory. For me, getting this story out and making a difference in Sierra Leone is more important than Beah not releasing the book because he wasn’t sure if his family was killed when he was 13 or 15 years old. And, in the book itself, Beah notes that he wasn’t sure of the amount of time that had passed, nor about his exact location on many occasions he speaks about in the book.

What do you think? When it comes to memoirs, how important is it to get every detail correct?


Chason said...

You make an excellent point about our memories and how we may very well remember an event in a totally different way than someone else. As individuals we all have different points of view and we take life in through our senses differently than someone else. And your point about the possibility that a person does not have a written record of their life like a diary, journal, etc. is an excellent one. I think that is why most U.S. presidents keep diaries - so they can publish them later or write their memoirs based on their diaries.
The major example that comes to mind when you talk about blurring the line between fiction and memoir is the James Frey book "A Million Little Pieces." Oprah basically reamed Frey on her show for fabricating portions of his book to make it more dramatic, but I wonder if you think that perhaps Oprah was a little too hard on Frey. The question is should he have presented the book as a memoir or should he have instead presented it as fiction loosely based on his own experience, which in my mind is basically what most fiction is anyway. For example, John Grisham's book, which we both enjoy, are mostly about lawyers and are set in Louisiana, both topics that Grisham is intimately familiar with. In other words, authors can really only write from their own experience, but in the end it is their choice as to whether they present their work as fiction or non-fiction. If they choose the latter, they are likely going to be criticized for fudging facts. But I think you are right to think that it's better sometimes to present a work as non-fiction (as in the case of the boy soldier from Sierra Leone) because it sheds light on a very real and tragic topic that people really need to be educated about.

Becca said...

Chason, thanks for the comment! Also, I meant to have a link to the James Frey book where it says "Ahem." I guess I forgot to post that part...and I'll go fix it right now. thanks so much for reading. I hope to see you back around these parts.

Seán McGrady said...

I like Billy Wilder's comment that preceded the "story" in his film, The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes; This is a true story, only the facts have been changed".

And, whilst I initially sniggered at an apparent literary liberty, I then thought that there is a powerful epistemological truth in this one line. I wish I had have thought of it, but it refers to a lot of philosophical thought about understanding society and the lives of individuals within it, not as we understand physical processes but more as we understand a language.

People automatically jump to the critical podium when a memoir has strayed off the "factual" straight and narrow. It is also the case when there is a history book doing the same or a film that treats of an historical subject.

Without going into any in depth analysis of this, as this is only a comment, I think that when we deal with lives, our own and others, what we have to remember are the external and the internal "stories". There is not only far too much emphasis placed on the external situations, it is a categorical mistake to seek understanding of human affairs in those areas. Here we can blame those social scientists for seeking to impose physical scientific method on the humanities. Understanding human nature, human thought, human action, human affairs, is to be referred to the "ideas" we have in the general context of ideas. This is a conceptual pursuit of truth and it is one that cannot be controlled by the so-called facts. If we are to write our life stories we have to pay attention our mental lives. This will certainly not be concerned with the accuracy of facts.

Becca said...

Sean, it's true, each person has their own perception of a situation. And when it comes to recalling a particular moment, it may not be the facts that we remember most, but the feelings and thoughts we had in that moment.

As for the critical podium, I'm just wondering how long it will take for the entire U.S. and U.K. media to jump on the band wagon. Sometimes I think people search for faults in these memoirs as a way to get a sensational story.

Seán McGrady said...

Becca, the exercise in factual exactitude is a disease of those who do not understand the real nature of memoir, or the way that we understand each other in our every day lives or as a society. It has been a disease of bad historians and biographers, in books and films, for a long time. And in the bigger picture,that of understanding society present and past it has been a bone of contention between philosophers and social scientists. If I wanted to know what your day was like, I would want to more more than a list of facts, my intention is to know what your day was like, which really is seeking your thoughts about the day. When I reflect about my day I never really think about what I did so much as what I thought when I did it. That is what I would want to deliver to someone who wanted to know about my day. It is that in much greater extension that a memoir is about.

But I think, in memoir alone,it is not just a matter of memory, not just how we perceive things differently, it is a how we understand our experience, our lives. How do we go about that investigation. That requires a sort of coherence of the inner and the outer. If say we were trying to understand the event of Cesar crossing the rubicon, we would of course be interested to know that he did in fact cross it on a particular time and date, but more importantly we would want to understand what were his very thoughts as he did so, and in what context those thoughts took place.

It seems more and more though that people on the critical podium are only interested in the external environment represented by so called facts. If they, the facts, are seen to be breached then the whole thing is called into question. There is very little attention paid to the way in which an author may be treating those ouside events in terms of his or her inner thoughts. I cannot recall who said it but whoever it was captured the idea when they said that: an action is the unity of the outside and inside of an event, but the ouside of the even (the facts) are only intelligible in terms of the inside.

Sorry to ramble...!!! But you inspired me...