Literature

Lie to Me: Literary Memoir in a Post-Truth Era

Hannah Pepper

Call it the Trump effect: “post-truth” was named Oxford Dictionaries 2016 word of the year, yet it is something which has continued to permeate culture ever since with the concept of truth becoming an increasingly slippery term. It is no coincidence that the literary memoir has appeared in abundance on shelves ever since, and its popularity certainly shows no sign of abating with the likes of Deborah Orr’s Motherwell, John Bercow’s Unspeakable, and Nora Ephron’s posthumous I Feel Bad About My Neck being published this year alone. 

Perhaps its ubiquity can be attributed to our innate nosiness into the lives of others, or our profound inclination to deflect from our own lives in the current precarious climate. Or rather, the memoirs tendency to dismantle the concrete boundary between fact and fiction — often trespassing between the two — has been reinterpreted as seductive because of the ineffability and elusiveness of what ‘truth’ has come to mean today. 

In today’s age, there is a constant emphasis on the idea of authenticity, yet the irony is that we are living in the most artificial and augmented age of all time. We are now willing suspenders of our own disbelief. Memoirs provide their readers access to the truth that they so desperately crave in an age where truth has become so hard to come by, whilst simultaneously having this badgering awareness that the truth is not always objective. It seems that we are attracted not to truth but rather to the illusion of truth and there is something incredibly primal about our desire to consume this type of literary genre.

It all boils down to the memoirs tendency to tell a story of an individual’s life, and, more importantly, a highly curated one in which it does not purport to tell the whole truth. Instead, it is the writer’s own version of the truth where their, often hyperbolised, recollections are consumed as gospel. It is now far more complicated than the dichotomised rhetoric between true and false; fact and fiction. Rather, it is a multifaceted and complex issue where we consume this literary genre simply because we are wanting to be lied to under the guise of ‘truth’.

The boom in the sales of memoirs recalls the controversy surrounding James Frey’s New York Times bestseller, A Million Little Pieces, which was notably marketed as a memoir of the author’s struggle with addiction. When it later emerged that Frey had fictionalised a number of the events noted in the book the outrage brigade was out in full force. It questions why when a lie is formally outed, controversy rears its head when we are, at the same time, cognisant of the memoirs tendency to distort and embellish the truth?

It is no misnomer that memoir writing is in the business of selling a certain truth to achieve a certain fiscal quota. But how far can the truth be imperilled before a culture of fabrication earns complete immunity? With many now treating autofiction as memoir and subsequently conflating the two, the danger now is that it is not only the memoir but also fiction that is being repackaged as absolute truth. It seems that the proverbial idea that language cannot provide an objective truth ironically rings true today.