Both of these special issues look at creative nonfiction/memoir, in the wake of the Jonathan Frey shipwreck. The Antioch Review's issue is subtitled Memoirs True and False. Editor Robert S. Fogarty in his introductory essay reminds us that this is not a new controversy, citing the reaction to Lillian Hellman’s Pentimento. He goes on to describe a number of memoirs, demonstrating their range and diversity. The essays that make up the bulk of the volume are also diverse, some giving an extraordinarily vivid view of an experience, others musing on the role of memory and memoirs. Creative Nonfiction's editor, Lee Gutkind, on the other hand, devotes the issue to explaining what the genre is and exploring some of the ethical issues faced by CNF writers.
One of these is how to handle dialogue. I know there are many readers who will not tolerate any dialogue whatsoever in a memoir, since it cannot be word-for-word accurate unless—like my son’s friend Lorne—the writer carried around a journal and transcribed every conversation as it happened. Other readers accept dialogue because it brings the scene to life and conveys an emotional truth.
Count me in the emotional truth camp. Picking up a memoir is, for me, like sitting down in a theatre. I know that the living room on the stage with its coral-striped rugs is not a real living room, and the deck with shells on the railing is not a real deck, but I’m willing to suspend my disbelief in order to enter into the story. If I want the facts about an event, I’ll go to the newspapers and history books, accepting even there the inevitable distortions. I go to a memoir for one person’s understanding of what happened. Obviously that person’s understanding is going to be skewed by the things s/he has selected to remember and the way those memories have been twisted by time, photographs, other people’s stories, etc.
There is substantial literary artifice involved in writing a memoir, even without the use of dialogue, if only in the selecting and ordering of events to create a narrative out of the chaos of a life lived. No writer—even a journalist—gives you every detail of a person’s appearance or every word that comes out of that person’s mouth. The writer selects details and quotes that support the narrative.
The further literary artifice of dialogue in a memoir doesn’t bother me. I trust that the writer is giving me the emotional truth of a conversation as the writer understands it. I trust that the writer is making a good faith effort to present not just dialogue but the events of the narrative as accurately as possible given the constraints of time and memory. Of course, sometimes that trust is betrayed. I personally draw the line at deliberate distortions such as creating composite characters and rearranging the chronology of events.
In a memoir, I don’t expect proclamations of truth handed down by an omniscient being. I expect to enter into the experience of another flawed human being, and welcome literary devices like dialogue that enhance that experience.