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Memoir Is Not Fiction Editorial Opinion

William H. Coles

Most contemporary literary writers write, and are educated to write, fiction as if it is a variant of writing memoir. Teachers of creative writing ask students to find what is meaningful for them, what is in their hearts? So when students write "fiction" stories–novels or shorter works–they write from their own experience; describe their own feelings; deliver their own opinions; describe their own memories for setting and scene events; and establish a voice for the work, their voice, without ever creating voices for a narrator or characters as distinct entities. Dialogue especially suffers, since everything in quotes is little changed from what the author would say and think.

But story structure is weak also. Fictional stories in memoir style seem to have little or no purpose and fail to have dramatic progression. In memoir style, almost always the author is the narrator, directly or indirectly, in first and third person, which limits the story presentation to the author's world-view, mind, and experience. And imagination (forming new ideas and concepts) to create story is limited in memoir style to the author's view of the world and descriptions of recollections.

Memoir-generated fiction is now accepted by readers as literary, mainly because of the number of authors who default to this style of writing. The style is easier to write and allows anyone, regardless of language skills, to tell a self-centered story that is increasingly being published today as literary fiction.  But is memoir-based fiction really being accepted by readers?  In today's stressed market with perceived shifting needs, literary fiction doesn't sell books to publishers' satisfaction. That may be because what is labeled as literary fiction is just sloppy memoir.

In the minds of most writers, what literary fiction is little more than a vague mist. Yet, the classics written as fiction (as it has continued to develop over the past three centuries) are rich with vibrant examples of great fiction.  Great literary fiction is character-based, that is, the strengths and weaknesses of characters drive the plot.  Great fiction is created by the author; told by the narrator in the narrator's own, distinct, world-view voice; and acted out by characters, who may in story-appropriate enhancing situations, create their own distinctive voices.  And literary stories have meaning, something happens, and someone is enlightened–character or reader, and often both be it usually in different ways.  Literary fiction is permeated with humor, usually in the form of irony, and has an understandable moral overlay, a morality that is story specific and not, for maximum effectiveness, the morality lived and pronounced by the author.  The writing in literary fiction is dramatic, interesting, engaging, and accurate with pinpoint word choice and carefully considered grammar appropriately chosen for the story.

And literary fiction is imagined, never just narrative description from authorial memories.  Not that the literary author doesn't draw on his or her experiences, and seeks stimulation from the past for engagement and function of the imagination.  For imaginative fiction, the author's world is only a nidus that stimulates imaginative use of a broader-than-author world, but the author's world is not the foundation or the embellishment of great literary stories. 

In essence and in contrast to memoir, literary stories are created by their authors, but authors create from broad views of the world fortified by experience and observation. Narrators and characters contribute to stories from their own special (author-created) worldviews.

The author's presence in the literary story is through the uniqueness of his or her creative abilities, the quality of the imagination, the skill of the writing, and by the author narrating through narrator and characters imagined for the story world; the author's worldview from their own narrow world is not present, or at least not dominant.

Literary fiction takes time, experience, hard work, vibrant imagination, and intellectual investment to produce unique, accurate, image-invoking writing and development of characters with unique characteristics that mesh synergistically with story, plot, and a recognizable reason for writing.  Great memoir is an excellently written, well-crafted presentation of an author's life events and experiences–often emotional and intellectual change–as told by the author.

Readers need literature written with fiction techniques and sophisticated narration to attain pleasure, a feeling of discovery, a new way of seeing the world, and a desire to continue to read to find the qualities of great stories and characters that only a writer of fiction, writing well and telling unique stories, can provide.

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6 Responses to “Memoir Is Not Fiction”

  1. passerby Says:

    James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist. D.H. Lawrence, Sons and Lovers. Thinly-disguised memoirs as novels isn't a new phenomenon, and certainly doesn't necessarily equal inferior quality fiction. You have some great tips, but also some rather strong, strange, dogmatic opinions. This memoir thing seems to be a pet peeve of yours.

  2. passerby Says:

    P.S. I make the above observation after spending the past 3 hours reading almost everything on your site.

  3. William H. Coles Says:

    Thanks for your comment. I confess to dogma. After extensive study with multiple sources, I've come to believe the techniques of writing great (sustainable) fiction are not being taught today, especially in academics. And I believe fiction well written with adherence to the historically-proven construction of great stories provides an effective and unique way to deliver stories that engage, entertain, and enlighten (especially enlighten in a purposeful way). In that light, I believe to learn to become a great storyteller and to write well requires a modicum of dogma in the environment that serves to teach writers today. But I do not denigrate the value and achievement of memoir, or thinly-disguised memoir. Or biography for that matter. My pet peeve is that contemporary teachers of "creative writing" who are (1) often untrained in teaching fiction, (2) make no distinction between fiction and memoir, and (3) are not particularly skilled in story creation or writing in general, continue to promote the "fiction of self" that negates certain qualities of characterization, fundamentals of storytelling, and accurate prose writing that allows the talented writer to maneuver in the difficult choices that allow fiction to be enjoyed, remembered, and passed on to future generations of readers as literary fiction.

    Also, contemporary teachers of fiction who encourage memoir with alterations as fiction encourage excessive descriptive writing of real or imagined events. The effect on the reader is often different than the written scene created with a purpose–scenes with action, rather than stasis of description, and conflict. Writing in scene is the gift fiction gives to the writer that can result in unique, effective, inspired fiction. There is no intent with this dogma to imply well-written memoir, even thinly-disguised memoir, is inferior or a failure. If the purpose of a writer is to create fictional stories, however, writing of self limits effective-fiction decisions in characterization and storytelling. There are exceptions, of course, and I think Isak Dinesen's Out of Africa is memoir that reads with the effects of great fiction; the characterization is strong, the plot dramatic, and the prose is impressive and has story-purpose.

    And my pet peeve is more frank irritation at the quality of instruction for writers available today in academics and self-proclaimed teachers of creative writing. And if my efforts to teach seem strange, I hope it's because my dogma is unfamiliar, or uncomfortable, in minds and materials of those contemporary teachers professing to instruct the art of fiction writing and storytelling.

    Again, thanks for your comment. Very much appreciated. WHC

  4. William H. Coles Says:

    I admire your tenacity. And thank you for sticking with it long enough to make a significant, valuable comment. WHC

  5. passerby Says:

    Thanks for replying.

    I understand what you're saying, and agree to a certain extent. However, I would say that there are so many variations on what makes a literay novel great (engaging, entertaining and enlightening), all depending on the writer, the period, the society, literary circles they moved in, type of story, what was fashionable etc for one to advocate a particular model of what this should look like for all writers for all time.

    For e.g. would you consider Joyce (whose two best known works are highly autobiographical) or Woolf (whose novels would fail to meet many of your criteria on many levels) to be great literary writers? In many ways they flaunt a lot of what you seem to hold dear. Neither writes the same type of novel, or with the same style or imperatives as Dickens, or Austen. And none of these are like Faulkner. And he isn't at all like Hemingway, who is nothing like Andrea Levy or Zadie Smith. And they aren't like Chinua Achebe, who is neither like Nuruddin Farah nor Ngugi nor Tutuola, and certainly not like Kiran Desai or Edwidge Danticat who are vastly different from Garcia Marquez and Rushdie and Diaz.

    Would you consider these quality literary fiction a la the classics, or academic fiction…?

    I just worry that you're trying to peg literary fiction to a very strict formula, which then disqualifies many wonderful stories and styles (see your post on the second-person pov, for example). Rather than being instructive for the would-be writers you're trying to help, this approach could end up restricting, even killing their own style and creativity. Ironic given that your tips for choosing a writing workshop includes being wary of teachers who do exactly what you seem to be doing here.

    Sorry this ended up sounding like a rant/attack – I do appreciate and commend you for what you're trying to do. Just had those major niggles, that's all.

  6. William H. Coles Says:

    Thanks again for comment. It is a pleasure to know your thoughts. And of course, you are absolutely right. There are volumes of influences on writing, and considerable subjective judgments on greatness and what's literary. My focus now is not so much on judging or critiquing the end product of a writer's work, but in examining the essence of the creative process where opportunities for writers to affect readers and create lasting works that might remain in the collective literary consciousness for generations can be found. This is not defensively offered, more for informative credentialing. I have attended more than a hundred writing courses in the last fifteen years, and studied with more the seventy writers and/or teachers. I've interviewed more than thirty-five authors, editors, and educators about the writing process. I've also looked to stories that have lasted for centuries and found the importance of attention to story structure and characterization as critical tools for sustained interest and enjoyment of a story. Of course these resources are not exclusive, but they are resources for a writer that have almost disappeared from the education of contemporary writers. Fiction provides special options for story success. In the main, fiction functions better with objective rendering of sentiment; allows careful attention to reader responses to story; demands prose that is story oriented rather than consumed by author salience; encompasses a broad view of the world rather than a constricted authorial view than can lead to self centered catharsis (which, of course, I admit, can be satisfying if not a common path to greatness); requires writing that has a purpose, often to examine the difficult metaphysical mysteries of human existent, and results in a change of a reader's perception of the world and the way we live. My desire is to have fiction well written with effective story to contribute to the literary works that survive into future generations. I want the voice of my generation to be heard, understood and remembered in the best possible light. The great fiction emerges from an imaginative creative process and not often, I believe, a descriptive process of memory and personal living. And for my sensibilities, fiction is the best way to go. Of course there are other ways that are emerging and appreciation of successful fiction of former centuries is declining. I find that sad and a threat to judgement of writing that persists far into the future. I work to provide for writers alternatives to augment their creativity and to enhance their attitudes toward the reasons for writing. Authors are best when they write for the reader's satisfaction and response, not for authorial therapy, fame, fortune, confession or catharsis, although many contemporary authors have sufficient readers to make authorial reasons for writing the basis for teaching and publishing "literature" these days. I've responded to dispel any sense of my disqualifying any writing from being labeled as literary. Those are judgements to be made by others. But I believe a formulaic understanding of fiction and the techniques that have worked for many great storytellers will partially assure that the end product of traditional fiction will persist as part of the literature of the future–persist for others to enjoy. All the best, WHC

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