Absolute Truth in Autobiography: Does it Exist?
The recent discovery of lies and deception in James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces has literary critics and common readers alike looking more closely at nonfiction writers. Some authors, such as Maxine Hong Kingston and Augusten Burroughs have been criticized by those who claim that their so-called memoirs are not completely truthful. Others, such as Jill Ker Conway are so committed to writing the truth down to the last detail that they take pains to do so. These authors undoubtedly hold views about truth that are not unlike those of other autobiographers and literary critics. There seems to be an ongoing debate as to what responsibilities life-writers have to their audience when it comes to the truth as well as the responsibilities they have to the people they include in their book(s). To what degree does the truth need be adhered to? Poet Sharon Olds contends that there is a spectrum of truth.1 Some authors are at the far right of the spectrum, taking a great deal of care when writing nonfiction, while others are far to the right throwing caution to the wind and writing what makes the story more sensational (We can put James Frey over on this side). There are undoubtedly many writers who would fall somewhere in the middle of this spectrum. Everyone has their own criteria when determining what should and should not be taken into account when writing nonfiction. We must ask ourselves what truth is. Does the definition differ from person to person, or is there an absolute truth? I contend that many nonfiction writers, namely Augusten Burroughs, Jill Ker Conway, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Sara Suleri and Mary Karr all have a certain respect for the truth and do not intend to write in a way to sensationalize their memoirs or get their names on the best sellers list. Although they may have different ways of proving to their audience that what they are writing is the truth, they are all telling their own truths.
Just as writers have their own idea of what truth is, so do literary critics and those who examine the element of truth in autobiographical writing. William Zinsser, in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, makes his stance on the issue very clear. "To write a memoir you must manufacture a text
.You must never forget the storyteller's ancient rules of maintaining tension and momentum" (Zinsser). Perhaps Maxine Hong Kingston would agree. The Woman Warrior, Kinston's controversial work about her life growing up as a Chinese-American, has raised questions about whether her book should be categorized as autobiography or as a novel. The use of "Talk-story" is what calls the genre into question. Kingston's work is criticized as being one without a genre. It mixes truth with speculation and legend. Some of her book has been invented, some inherited, some remembered. One scene in her book which shows a combination of remembered and invented text is a memory involving one of her classmates: "Sniffling and snorting, I couldn't stop crying and talking at the same time. I kept wiping my nose on my arm, my sweater lost somewhere (probably not worn because my mother said to wear a sweater). It seemed as if I had spent my life in that basement, doing the worst thing I had yet done to another person. 'I'm doing this for your own good,' I said. 'Don't you dare tell anyone I've been bad to you. Talk. Please talk" (Kingston 181).
This scene is easily remembered by Kingston because it was such an emotional one, yet she needs to invent the dialogue. She cannot possibly remember the exact words that were spoken when she was a child.
Much of her book has been inherited- told to her by a family member such as the story she heard from her mother about her aunt. "You must not tell anyone," my mother said, "what I am about to tell you. In China your father had a sister who killed herself. She jumped into the family well. We say...
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Suleri, Sara. Meatless Days. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Kingston, Maxine Hong. The Woman Warrior. New York: Vintage International, 1975.
Burroughs, Augusten. Running with Scissors. New York: St. Martin 's Press, 2002.
Conway, Jill Ker. The Road from Coorain. New York: Vintage Departures, 1989.
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Jones, L. Gregory. Betting on the truth- Faith matters. Christian Century. Feb. 2004.
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Lazarre, Jane. A Slight Distortion of the Truth. Feminist Studies 12 (1986): 105-115
Burroughs, Augusten. Interview with Peter Sciretta. Slashfilm. 18 Oct. 2006. www.slashfilm.com/article.php/20061018augustenburroughsinterview
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