Mark Barrowcliffe wrote a very nice comment about my review of his book. But he made me aware of some things that I thought about saying then but which I didn’t.
Sarah always comments that my posts are long (not that there’s anything wrong with that), so I’m conscious of not getting too verbose. And in this case I censored out a few things that I thought about including but that I didn’t, in the interest of shorter posts.
I mentioned that I don’t really like memoirs as a genre. While I think it’s great that so many stories are being told, I think the memoir genre is somewhat disingenuous. They are presented as nonfiction and yet they aren’t quite autobiography. We’ve already seen the trouble that arose with A Million Little Pieces. I don’t really care about that all that much. I mean, if Mark Barrowcliffe makes up some details about what he did as a teenager, what do I care? Same with James Frey. (Not that I’m comparing Barrowcliffe & Frey, it’s just a prominent example). If the details were fake, well, I’d never heard of him before the book, so it’s not like he made up facts about, say, George Washington’s life.
However, I was planning on including a little section about memoirists. What I find most interesting about the memoir genre, and which directly applies to Barrowcliffe’s comment is author vs. main character. His comment was “I’m glad you liked the book, even if you didn’t like me!” And yes, I was pretty harsh on Barrowcliffe the character in the book. But I don’t really believe that book Barrowcliffe IS the same as Mark, who wrote the letter.
[I'm going to keep the rather forced convention that "Barrowcliffe" is the guy in the book while "Mark" is the guy who wrote the book, in part because it's easier but also because, hey, that's how he signed his comment, so we're like pen pals now! (I'm such an author whore) Actually this naming convention was used in a recent piece I read about David Foster Wallace so I didn't make it up].
So, yes, memoirs are obviously about the person who is writing the book. But the character in the book is also clearly not the whole person. Logistically, it wouldn’t be possible to include every aspect of your personality when writing a memoir. It also wouldn’t make for a very focused book. So, you keep what’s pertinent and exclude stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with your thesis.
In The Elfish Gene, Barrowcliffe is rather unlikable. And that’s sort of the point. Even as he gets older and “learns” from his mistakes, he’s still judgmental. And as a character, that works out well. I’m not going to speak for Mark, as I don’t know him at all (except that his letter was very polite), but I rather assume that he’s not as judgmental as Barrowcliffe. This is not to say that I think Mark lied about Barrowcliffe, just that as an author he can’t suddenly present himself as a super nice, mature adult who won over the heart of a beautiful, intelligent woman. [For example, "After I gave up D&D, I matured, learned the error of my ways and became a charming hunk" just doesn't have the authorial integrity of the rest of the book (even if, as Mark points out in his comment, "An Englishman who says ‘I’m a bit of an idiot, really’ is saying the same, though in code, as an American who says ‘I’m one helluva guy!’"].
So what’s my point? Well, I feel like in memoirs, even if you are talking about yourself, you have to create the character of yourself. Even if you tell the truth, it’s your version of the truth. If you make yourself look bad, you’re aware that you’re making yourself look bad, so you’re downplaying your maturity (even if it is retrospective). So, in many ways it’s not too far off from writing fiction. I mean, really how many novels are just thinly disguised fiction anyhow?
So, there’s something weird to me about why memoirs are so much more popular than fiction. Why do reader feel that memoirs are more authentic (if that’s even why people read them)? What is it about the marketing of a book that somehow makes a memoir more marketable than a novel? Would I have read The Elfish Gene if it was a novel about a loser who played D&D? You bet I would! But, how exactly would that get marketed? Would it have gotten the same kind of publicity that this book received? Somehow I doubt it.
Of course, if this book were a novel, the ending would have to be different and would have to be more novelistically satisfying. Memoirs don’t have to “end properly.” And that’s why I find them a little bit lazier than fiction. For a novel to be successful it must meet certain criteria. With a memoir, well, that’s just life, right.
The Elfish Gene was a memoir that I really liked. Could he have written it as a novel and included the detailed scenes of intense D&D action? I’m not sure. Although he does have a new novel coming out, so we’ll see how he handles the issue.
I guess I’m conflicted about the whole thing. And I do wonder if anyone else has this internal conflict or if I’m the only one who obsesses over things like this.
Oh, and the name Barrowcliffe is simply too perfect a name for a D&D player.