Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Not That Kind Of Memoir

And once again a memoir hyped beyond reason has proven to be largely a work of fiction.

This time it's Lena Dunham, of the pleasing plumped-up platform. Her book tour was a masterful bit of marketing, garnering news which in turn provided free publicity to further boost sales.

NOT THAT KIND OF GIRL has been sold as a memoir. The Random Penguins paid a fat advance for it, in large part because Lena Dunham's television programme draws the right kind of audience. It's all about the millenials these days, those twenty-somethings who are filled with the sort of angst that Ms. Dunham cultivates. Who wouldn't buy her memoir, to learn where her outlook and humour come from?

The first difficulty arose shortly after the book was laid down and someone looked at Ms. Dunham's relationship to her younger sister. The prose smacked of child sexual abuse and some less-than-acceptable curiosity. Just like that, the author appearances at book signings were cancelled. The author did not back down from her recollections, maintaining that her book was definitely a memoir. She apologized, of course, and the book continued to be featured in the non-fiction section.

Ms. Dunham's memoir also touched on her earliest sexual awakening, which she said included rape.

That sort of accusation will make a reader sit up and take notice. It will also see the fact-checkers arise to check what facts they can uncover. If it's a memoir, you see, the facts must be checkable. Otherwise, it's a work of fiction and should be called a novel, which does not have the same cachet as a genuine accounting.

Did Ms. Dunham name her rapist? Why yes, she did, and wouldn't you know that it was a man of radically different political views than her own.

That's the sort of thing that creates tension in a novel, and it doesn't hurt when a memoir has a bit of tension to get the readers turning the page.

The fact-checkers figured out fairly easily who she was accusing. As many have noted, conservatives at the ultra-liberal Oberlin College are rare. Conservatives named "Barry" who were in university at the same time would be even more rare. The former Oberlin College student named Barry was found. He was a real person. The memoir was verified.

Until Barry made noise about a libel suit because the rape accusation levelled at him was fictional. He never met Ms. Dunham.

Now Ms. Dunham and her publisher are scrambling to avoid an expensive lawsuit and a legal demand that all copies of the book be pulped, with sales discontinued. No e-books. No paperbacks. It must all disappear.

Penguin Random House hopes very much that Barry will accept their apology and their attempt to fix things by putting a note into the e-books that Barry is a pseudonym for the rapist. And the mustache and purple cowboy boots worn by Barry are also pseudonyms, we must presume, because the description of the invented Barry just happens to fit the real Barry.

Will the publishers ever learn to check the facts of the memoirs they publish before they put themselves into these situations? It's gotten to the point where you can't be sure if that memoir you're reading is just a work of pure fiction that wouldn't otherwise sell if it couldn't be touted as a litany of real events.

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