The Truth Hurts: Fiction, Memoir, and Publishing Today

by Thomas Beller

05/12/2006

72 Nassau St., NY, NY 10038

Neighborhood: Financial District

At the height of the scandal over the inventions in James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces,” I was thinking about “Westchester Burning” by Amina Wefali.

“A Million Little Pieces” is about a man and his addiction. “Westchester Burning” is about a woman and her marriage. Any resemblance between these two very different books is limited to whatever slim overlap there may be between those two topics–but with one big exception: they were both sold to the public as memoirs. And neither of them were memoirs.

There are different routes to the misnaming of a book as a memoir. The Frey approach, as we now know, involves sensationalizing experience. It’s a form of sensationalism via exaggeration. Fictionalizing.

The experiences recounted in “Westchester Burning” are not sensationalized or exaggerated, but they are fictionalized. Wefali’s writing is a kind of magnifying glass trained onto the subject matter at hand–the dissolution of a marriage, the lives of the protagonist, the people she encounters. A big house, children, shared decades. Her tone is tart, wise, deadpan sometimes to the point of sounding a bit stunned. There are echoes of James Salter, but where Salter writes with the wisdom of someone who has seen it all, Wefali writes as if she is experiencing everything for the first time and can’t quite believe it. And yet the flatness of the voice is like the blankness of Buster Keaton’s face—a vehicle for comedy. She has a miraculous eye for the absurd, and an equally miraculous ear for her character’s conversations.

Anyway, don’t take my word for it, here is an excerpt.

Portions of the book appeared in Open City 8 and again in Open City 14. Each one a gem.

So it was a happy thing when I heard that an agent had contacted Amina. Not long after, the agent sold the manuscript to a well-regarded editor at the Dial Press, a distinguished literary imprint (who recently purchased this Neighborhood contributor’s forthcoming memoir).

It never occurred to me that the book would be presented as something other than fiction; Amina had always referred to it as fiction. The prose read with the immediate intensity of something that really happened, but that was no reason to insist on being true to the facts. Each little tidbit was stylized and dramatized.

So… what is the big deal if it is fiction or a memoir? A story is a story! And yet.

When I found out it was being put out as a memoir I felt as though its artistic accomplishment was being slighted. Amina told me about it with a mixture of alarm and rue—apparently it had something to do with the lawyers at the publishing house, how there was less legal exposure if it was treated as a memoir and not a novel. This makes no sense, but then Amina’s is not a legalistic mind, and apparently there was no arguing with the publisher. It was her book, but it was their money (and an impressive sum), which Amina felt gave them a certain authority over how they could most likely get their money back.

The book was well received, to a point, and sold a respectable amount, I think. Not what a publisher dreams of, but still.

A reviewer in booklist wrote:

“This brave, stoic memoir recounts the collapse of the author’s own 30-year marriage, and few fictional accounts could be as brutally honest, heartbreakingly poignant, or emotively explicit.”

I couldn’t disagree more—the implication is that the events are powerful because they really happened. But unlike a guy who gets dental work without anesthetics, a divorce is a commonplace thing (though perhaps as painful). It wasn’t what happened to Amina Wefali that makes her book interesting, it is the way she tells the story, the highly stylized drama, the abrupt conclusions to the vignettes, the music of the conversation.

I’ve always felt that when someone asks me if a piece of fiction I wrote really happened, if the character is really me, it deals an implied insult to the writing, as though it isn’t skill or imagination that made the story, but just straight reportage. I once went so far as to repeatedly insist on how invented a particular story was in an anthology that asks the question of its contributors, “How did your story come to be written?” Further down the page were remarks by Dennis Johnson, writing about his story “Emergency,” which became part of his story collection, “Jesus’ Son.” Johnson wrote, “I did in fact work as a clerk in a hospital emergency room in Iowa City. This story strings together a lot of things I heard or I experienced there—a good deal of it actually happened.”

This is refreshing candor coming from Dennis Johnson, author. When that blurring comes from critics, or the publishing world, it becomes insidious.

Edmund White’s recently published autobiography, “My Lives,” contains details that will seem extremely familiar to anyone who has read his autobiographical novel, “A Boys Own Story.” But the two books couldn’t be more different in structure and tone and in their effect on the reader. You could probably look back at every decade for the last hundred years and find examples of autobiographical fiction that, in today’s publishing climate, some editor might have been tempted to publish as memoir.

As my friend Patrick Gallagher pointed out, “People think that they prefer reading memoir to fiction, but they really don’t. What audiences actually prefer is fiction that they think is memoir.” Nevertheless, I don’t mean to play a parlor game in which we look back at all the great autobiographical fiction and wonder if it would seem as interesting or as accomplished had it been presented as straight autobiography. But it is interesting to think about these last few years, when the “true story” has come to exert such a lunar pull on the publishing industry and its customers, and wonder about all the novels and story collections that were stolen out from under our eyes and sold, in a diminished form, as the plain truth.

**

On a related note, Amina Wefali runs an organic sandwich shop near Wall Street called, “Zaitzeff,” with her son and daughters. The food is fantastic. And shortly after they opened I came by and had some of their excellent food, a waffle with ham and cheese mixed in, and it was handed to me on a very nice plate. I stared at it for a while before realizing the plate came from her own kitchen. The one I visited in Westchester! There is a good fiction/non-fiction moment. I recomend a visit to Zaitzeff. Say hello to Amina. She is very nice. She’ll be totally shocked to be recognized as the writer of Westchester Burning. As far as being a published author goes, she still doesn’t really believe it.

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