Since Lance Armstrong’s confession of blood doping and use of other performance-enhancing substances, the publishing industry finds itself tripping over the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.lance armstrong In January a lawsuit filed by two California men claims Armstrong’s two books, It’s Not About the Bike (2000) and Every Second Counts (2003) were categorically dishonest: marketed as non-fiction when they were fiction.

Jonah Lehrer published How We Decide in 2009 but it was only a year ago that his fabrication of quotes became public knowledge.jonah lerner His publisher pulled his new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (2012) for its many errors and Lehrer’s failure to understand or appreciate the importance of facts and attribution. Non-fiction writing can be creative. But you can’t make stuff up and play it off as factual or real. That violates the implicit trust between the reader and author.

james freyIt’s been a decade since James Frey authored A Million Little Pieces and Doubleday published it as memoir. As allegations of embellishments and news reports challenging the book’s claims surfaced in 2006, Oprah Winfrey invited Frey back on her TV program. Frey confessed he had only spent a few hours in jail rather than the 87 days he claimed. Publishing veteran, Nan Talese admitted she had done nothing to check the veracity of the manuscript and accepted it on face-value as non-fiction.

The aftermath can be measured in legal expenses to publishing companies, loss of book sales, and much more careful vetting of manuscripts, particularly memoirs. Much of that vetting must be done by agents or book development editors.

Yet the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction continue to blur. One of the pet peeves of acquisition editors in cover letters is genre confusion. “Please find my fictional memoir,” or “I’ve written a novel based on the facts of my life.”

The book publishing industry adds to this confusion with a growing market for a new category dubbed Young Adult Reality-Based Fiction. Graphic novels as a marketing niche now includes documentary titles based on contemporary issues and historical events.

Ben Greenman, an editor at The New Yorker, filed a formal complaint in the New York Times on March 15, 2013 against “novels” marketed as fiction when they blatantly contain elements of truth. It’s a raucous mashup and genuine thinkpiece.

In his essay, “True Lies,” Greenman refers to Lance Armstrong’s interview with Winfrey when he confessed to have looked up the word “cheat” in the dictionary.

The media spectacle of shaming those who misrepresent facts for profit in the world of publishing, sports, books, journalism, and politics is all too common a decade after Frey’s debacle. Non-fiction, of which memoir is a genre, is based on the truth and facts. You can’t make up stuff.

Ben Greenman pulls out his book and reminds us of the definition of fiction: Prose literature, especially short stories and novels, about imaginary events and people. Greenman lists a few offending titles whose fiction is thinly veiled memoir.

Mary McCarthy, J.D. Salinger, Kerouac, Steinbeck. I’d throw in Harper Lee, Ernest Hemingway, even Herman Melville. Stories written with the details of an author’s own lived experiences cached in memory.

If you are writing memoir and seek publication in today’s media milieu, stick to the facts. Authenticity is one of the necessary qualities for a memoir to satisfy readers. An interview on Oprah Winfrey may not necessarily the best career move. Writers beware: don’t betray the reader with lies.

2 thoughts on “Genre Confusion: Fiction, Non-fiction

  1. It also feels like a betrayal when the memoir author omits essential facts. Joyce Carol Oates neglected to tell her readers that she had found a new relationship during the year following her husband’s death, the year she writes about. Her book is all about the despair of her particular widowhood with no mention of the blush of new love. I’m glad she fell in love and got married, but I felt ripped off when I found out that I had been digging my way through her despair while she was living a different life than she portrayed.

    • Good point Elaine. Honesty with the reader requires a full accounting. Sins of ommission can hurt an author’s authenticity as much as making up stuff. Thanks for reading and adding to the conversation.

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