|Is this the face of a novelist?|
Speculations on Lance
and fiction vs. memoir
by Hugh Gilmore
Many people who read a lot of books emphatically do not like reading fiction. Their reasons for this aversion vary enormously but most seem to distill down to this: they want to read a story that is “true.” Sometimes they add the justification that they want to “learn something” from what they read. After all, since life is too short, why waste time on mere entertainment?
Other readers have said things like, “I was really enjoying that book – in fact, I was halfway through it – when I learned it was a novel and not a true story. Boy, was I disappointed!” I don’t think my brain is working well enough today to even begin to explain the complexities behind such ideas, but I do want to take some time out to enjoy the entire truth-versus-fiction phenomenon.
I now segue, yes, to the Lance Armstrong hornswoggle-that-won’t-lie-down has now spread to the world of book publishing. On January 22, in Federal Court in Sacramento, according to Bloomberg News, a man named Rob Stutzman filed a formal complaint of interest to the publishing industry. (Stutzman v. Armstrong, 13-00116, U.S. District Court, Eastern District of California [Sacramento].)
At issue: Stutzman claims that he never would have bought Armstrong’s book, “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life,” (2000) had he known it was not true.
Stutzman and his co-plaintiff, Jonathan Wheeler, said in their complaint about that book, and its sequel, “Every Second Counts,” (2003), that Armstrong denied all the doping rumors about himself and attributed his successes to “superior physical training, proper diet and an extraordinary spirit and drive to succeed,” among other things. Both of the California plaintiffs say they were severely disappointed when Armstrong’s books were exposed as fraudulent. And, they say they never would have bought the books if they thought they weren’t telling the truth. In effect, they had been sold fiction when they thought they were buying memoirs.
And the plaintiffs do not just hold Armstrong responsible for this bait-and-switch. They are also suing Penguin Group (USA) Inc., publisher of “It’s Not About the Bike,” and Random House, Inc., publisher of “Every Second Counts.” They seek to represent California buyers of the books to recover unspecified damages.
The spokespersons for Armstrong, Penguin and Random House made no immediate comments to the suit. So, once again, the world has proved to be not only stranger than we imagine, but also stranger than we can imagine. Certainly some interesting questions have been raised about the difference between history/memoirs and fiction.
To begin with: are lying and fiction the same thing? Or, turning the question around, Are fiction and lying the same thing? What if we dignify the word “fiction” by giving it upper-case treatment and calling it by the literary term, “Fiction”? Perhaps those are petty questions since the legal issue here is truth in labeling.
But I’m trying to get at this idea: When do a memoir’s inaccuracies, if they do not slander another person, make the author legally liable to a lawsuit? I’m betting, along with Mark Twain, that most autobiographies of famous persons, especially heroes, are trumped up collections of exaggerations and, often, downright lies. Armstrong’s two autobiographical books would probably be recommended to children down through the ages had they not been exposed as dishonest.
As they say, however, history lies in the hands of the person holding the microphone. In the meantime, there are those who believe that good literary fiction is “true” in a deep and significant way, truer even than the best history or biography books. “True” because it is true about life, i.e. human nature. True because it gives us “aha” moments, rather than “a-Hah” or “ha-ha” moments. If you don’t agree, I suppose you could sue.