Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
March 24, 2013
Blog No. 16
Lev Raphael is one of the most prolific writers I know. And a voracious, informed lover of books as well. Over the course of his career, he’s written short stories, novels, memoirs, articles, and reviews. He’s also taught writing, interviewed many writers, both for his radio show and for publications on/about writing. Lev has also lectured and done readings in several countries, most recently, Germany. Just a look at his bio note below shows you how versatile and productive he is.
I’m happy to have him as a guest blogger.
Fiction as Memoir, Memoir as Fiction: Does it Really Matter?
Memoir scandals break out all the time: someone's memoir turns out to be highly fictionalized. But what about the opposite? How much fiction is really disguised memoir? Over the years I've often been asked how much of my writing is autobiographical, and even people who know me have gotten confused.
My recently re-published first novel Winter Eyes is about the son of Holocaust survivors who've hidden their Jewish past from him and tried to bring him up in New York as a Polish Catholic. Because the book was set in New York where I grew up, and because it focuses on a child of Holocaust survivors like me, it actually puzzled one friend who knew a lot about my life. After he finished reading it, he said, "I didn't realize your parents got divorced when you were little." I told him they weren't divorced, though perhaps they should have been.
"And did your parents pretend they weren't Jewish?" I explained that of course they hadn't, and that he and I had talked about my Jewish background before, more than once. He wasn't done. There was a whole series of things he said he hadn't known about me, but those were all drawn from the life of the boy in the novel, not part of my real life. In each case, I explained the difference. After a long pause, he said, "No wonder I was confused."
Because I had woven in bits and pieces of my real experiences, refracted in complex ways, he caught their scent, but those few traces of reality made him assume it was all true. Winter Eyes is emotionally real, but an alternate reality. I wrote it imagining an almost completely different life from the one I’d had. For instance, I had a very troubled relationship with my older brother, but the boy in Winter Eyes is an only child. So in a way, you could also call the novel a secret memoir.
My friend's type of confusion is especially strong with stories and books I've written in the first person, and people after a reading from one of those works will invariably refer to "The part where you..." I reply, "You mean the part where he..." and they smile indulgently. It's happened not just in America, but at readings I've given in Germany. Years ago, I was annoyed, but I eventually learned to take it as a compliment. The narrative had seemed so real to the audience that people automatically assumed I was transcribing something from my own life. (more…)
March 4, 2013
Blog No. 15
This entry is an extension of entry 4, The Role of Persona in Crafting
Personal Narratives, June 13, 2012 (see Archives)
Did It Really Happen The Way You Wrote It?: The Memoirist as Unreliable Narrator
In Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl, the two main characters are dueling, unreliable narrators. A deliberate choice of course by the author. Both are
self-centered narcissists who exaggerate their own strengths and exploit one another’s weaknesses; both are misleading and deceitful; both are unconscionable liars. Classic unreliable narrators, and believable ones at that. This is a big reason why the novel worked, for me, at least.
As a lifelong reader of fiction who borrows what he can from the good writers, I have no problem accepting the larger-than-life behavior of Flynn’s twin narrators. Their actions, abhorrent as they might be, demonize them and at the same time, humanize them.
As a writer, I’m a memoirist by trade; and according to certain readers, reviewers, critics, and media flaks, there simply is no place in the genre for unreliable narrators. Right, the James Frey/Oprah flap, false Holocaust memoirs, plagiarized journalism—you know, the usual suspects.
But, those aren’t literary works and that’s not the only way to look at this.
...We do not write to be understood. We write in order to understand --C.S. Lewis
Many works of creative nonfiction—especially the personal essay and the memoir-- grow out of an expressive, exploratory impulse--closer in intent perhaps to the impulse that produces some forms of lyric poetry and prose. (more…)