July 29, 2022

On June 23, the Pulitzer Prize Board announced a new prize category for books.

“The new Pulitzer Prize category will be for distinguished and factual memoir or autobiography by an American author,” read the release. 

Memoirs have won Pulitzers in the past under the Biography category. Now they have their own category, a move that I applaud.

But my applause comes with a caution. Before the judging of memoirs begins by Pulitzer jurors, the Board would be wise to formulate not just general criteria, but a clear set of standards. The phrase “factual memoir” is not enough. I issue this warning after years of listening to arguments by memoirists as to what kind of genre it really is.

For many memoirists, going back centuries, they are writing “literary documents,” in which some scenes can be imagined, rather than remembered. For them the memoir is a hybrid form, fictional and non-fictional elements merging into something that reads like a novel.

On the other end of the spectrum are those who write fully reported narratives, applying what the Board would recognize as journalistic standards. Memory may be faulty, of course, but the factual scribes try their best to remember as best as they can, and check things out whenever they can. It helps to describe that embarrassing moment from first grade if you have a photo of the classroom. 

It was almost exactly ten years ago, after a series of fabrication scandals, that I tried to lay out a set of standards and practices for non-fiction writers, including memoirists. I delivered my proposed standards at the Mayborn Literary festival in Texas, where they received a mostly positive reception.

I explained that I hated being the school monitor of American journalism, but that someone had to offer the standards in the most rigorous form, just so we could argue about them responsibly. When it comes to nonfiction, we need to take a “vow of chastity,” I suggested to some laughter (as I remember!).

The exposure of literary malpractice, I told the crowd, had turned me from skeptic to cynic. When I read or hear a scene in a story, for example, that seems too good to be true — like performance artist Mike Daisey’s exploited Chinese worker rubbing the stump of his hand over the magic surface of an iPad — I now assume it is NOT true. Here are the most rigorous steps to an honest form of writing, narratives that can use the practical truth to render a compelling experience to readers. 

  1. Any degree of fabrication turns a story from nonfiction into fiction, which must be labeled as such. (A story cannot be a little fictional.)
  2. The writer, by definition, may distort reality by subtraction (the way a photo is cropped), but is never allowed to distort by adding material to nonfiction that the writer knows did not happen.
  3. Characters that appear in nonfiction must be real individuals, not composites drawn from a number of persons. While there are occasions when characters can or should not be named, giving characters fake names is not permitted. (They can be identified by an initial, a natural status “The Tall Woman,” or a role “The Accountant.”)
  4. Writers of nonfiction should not expand or contract time or space for narrative efficiency. (Ten conversations with a source that took place in three locations cannot be merged into a single conversation in a single location.)
  5. Invented dialogue is not permitted. Any words in quotations marks must be the result of a) written documents such as trial transcripts, or b) words recorded directly by the writer or some other reliable source.  Remembered conversations — especially from the distant past — should be rendered with another form of simple punctuation, such as indented dashes: — like this –.
  6. We reject the notion in all of literature of a “higher truth,” a phrase that has been used too often as a rationalization in nonfiction for making things up. It is hard enough, and good enough, to attempt to render a set of “practical truths.”
  7. Aesthetic considerations must be subordinated — if necessary — to documentary discipline.
  8. Nonfiction does not result from a purely scientific method, but responsible writers will inform audiences on both what they know and how they know it. The sourcing in a book or story should be sufficient so that another reporter or researcher or fact-checker, acting in good faith, could follow the tracks of the original reporter and find comparable results.
  9. Unless working in fantasy, science fiction, or obvious satire, all writers, including novelists and poets, have an affirmative duty to render the world accurately through their own research and detective work. 
  10. The escape clause: There may be occasions, when the writer can think of no other way to tell a story than through the use of one or more of these “banned” techniques. The burden is on the writer to demonstrate that this is so. To keep faith with the reader, the writer should become transparent concerning narrative methods. A detailed note to readers should appear AT THE BEGINNING OF THE WORK to alert them of the standards and practices of the writer.

Two authors, two standards

Two of the most successful practitioners of memoir are Vivian Gornick and Mary Karr. I name them here because in my book “Murder Your Darlings” I devote a chapter to the significant differences in their standards and practices. In that chapter, I quote Gornick’s description of how memoir works:

The subject of autobiography is always self-definition, but it cannot be self-definition in the voice.  The memoirist, like the poet and the novelist, must engage with the world, because engagement makes experience, experience makes wisdom, and finally it’s the wisdom — or rather the movement toward it — that counts.

She quotes a nameless writing teacher:

The poet, the novelist, the memoirist — all must convince the reader they have some wisdom, and are writing as honestly as possible to arrive at what they know. To the bargain, the writer of personal narrative must also persuade the reader that the narrator is reliable. In fiction a narrator may be — and often famously is — unreliable. … In nonfiction, never. In nonfiction the reader must believe that the narrator is speaking truth. Invariably, of nonfiction it is asked, “Is this narrator trustworthy? Can I believe what he or she is telling me?” 

It is at this point that the argument gets tricky as it depends upon how the writer understands the reader.  Is the reader of memoir “willfully ignorant” as one author argued, or is the reader a skeptic, always attuned to the false note, sniffing for fabrication in what is purported to be “the way it was”?

The debate on the nature of nonfiction narrative played out in a dramatic way one summer at Goucher College in Towson, Maryland, outside of Baltimore. Goucher is a school that offers a low-residency MFA with an emphasis on nonfiction narrative. Some of the best authors and teachers of the craft in America have visited the program, either as instructors or tutors. Gornick was one of those visitors. (Full disclosure — I have visited the program twice. On August 7, 2011 — on my 40th wedding anniversary — I received an honorary degree at Goucher and gave the summer commencement speech.)

I was not there the summer of Gornick’s visit, but my best friend was: Tom French, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing in 1998. So was Walt Harrington, a veteran of immersive reporting and narrative writing, with years at the Washington Post and a teacher at the University of Illinois.

A kerfuffle erupted after Gornick did a reading of her memoir that described conversations with her mother, conversations, Gornick admitted, that characterized honestly her relationship with her mom, but that had never actually occurred in the way they were described.  (I have not met or interviewed Gornick, but have talked to witnesses and read her comments about the ensuing debate.) Like many defenders of the “fourth genre,” Gornick sees memoir as an act of the imagination. Based on memory (which has its own fictionalizing effects), memoir, it is said, represents not literal truth, but a “higher” truth — reality as it is experienced, not as it is documented.

Over time, as news of the debate got out, the antagonists seem to harden their stances. The loose constructionists surrounded Gornick with support, and the hard liners began to draw harder lines, declaring more demanding sets of standards and practices.

In 2006 the controversy was dramatized and became national on one of the most famous episodes of the Oprah Winfrey Show. For her influential book club, she chose “A Million Little Pieces,” a memoir of alcoholism and dissolution, by author James Frey. Originally imagined as a novel, the best-seller was reinvented as nonfiction. It had been based upon Frey’s personal experiences, but investigative reports revealed that key scenes had been either fabricated or exaggerated. Several authors, including this reporter, wrote columns criticizing Winfrey’s continued support for the book. Three of us were invited to her show to air our concerns. What we did not realize is that, at the beginning of the show, Winfrey would disavow Frey and cross-examine him in front of a national audience until the opening cheers for him eventually turned to boos. Winfrey would eventually apologize to Frey for her sucker punch.

I argued, with others, that there was a social contract that existed between the reader and author of nonfiction; that the contract read: “Please believe me, my memory of events may be flawed, but none of this was intentionally made up.” If the author decided to veer from this standard, say, by using composite characters, the author must be transparent, revealing the strategies before the story begins, not in a footnote at the end.

The danger, I argued, was that when readers learn that part of a memoir was fabricated, they will begin to doubt the veracity of the entire story. And if one memoir is debunked, how can I trust the veracity of the next one I read?

I found the best articulation of this approach in “The Art of Memoir” (2015) by Mary Karr. Her authority on the subject derives from her experience as writer and teacher. She is a poet, essayist, and author of three prize-winning memoirs, notably “The Liar’s Club,” about her tough childhood in East Texas, which the New York Times praised as “Astonishing … one of the most dazzling and moving memoirs to come along in years.”

When it comes to the contract between reader and writer, she begins: “When I think of all the stiff pronouncements I’ve made demanding truth in memoir over the years, I’m inclined to hang my head. I sound like such a pious twit, the village vicar wagging her finger at writers pushing the limits of the form. Forgive me, I am not the art police.”

She continues:

No writer can impose his own standards onto any other, nor claim to speak for the whole genre. I would defend anybody’s right to move the line for veracity in memoir, though I’d argue the reader has a right to know. But my own humble practices wholly oppose making stuff up.

Karr finds her antagonist in none other than Vivian Gornick, interviewed in The Believer magazine:

I embellish stories all the time. I do it even when I’m supposedly telling the unvarnished truth. Things happen, and I realize that what actually happens is only partly a story, and I have to make the story. So I lie. I mean, essentially – others would think I’m lying. But you understand. It’s irresistible to tell the story. And I don’t owe anybody the actuality. What is the actuality? I mean, whose business is it?

Mary Karr’s riposte remains my favorite statement on the subject:

Well, if I forked over a cover price for nonfiction, I consider it my business. While it’s great she owned up to her deceits, it’s hard to lend credence to any after-the-fact confession, especially one as vague or self-justifying as this one. It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, “I put just a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.” To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.

Having been a Pulitzer juror on four occasions – twice on the jury for general nonfiction books – I have a feeling that the Board will not be inclined to give an award to an author who adheres to Gornick’s standards. They will prefer Karr’s. But how will they know?

The answer is transparency. I would feel more confident as a judge if I read at the beginning of the book an “about this book” page that explains its standards. If that is missing, the editor (or another person) who nominates the book can include a letter that describes the working methods of the author.

That cynical voice in my head tells me that at least once over the next 20 years, some fictionalized elements will sneak through a jury, be discovered by the memoir police (not me!), and cause a scandal.

Cheers to the Board for creating this category, but I think you have a little more work to do.

This article was updated to correct the location of Goucher College.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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