|Fact or Fiction? Which Should You Read--or Write?|
In a previous column (http://egenerations.com/article-1299-6-fact-fiction-and-book-scandals) I wrote about some of the well-known literary hoaxes in which authors have claimed fiction to be fact. It seems that such cases surface quite often these days, to the point that a few readers avoid "personal" stories. These are probably the same readers who reject fiction in favor of "just the facts." If so-called factual literature is not true, what's left for them? Personally, I hope such readers rediscover the joys of fiction.
So why do authors fake it? Why did James Frey choose to embellish his story of surviving addiction rather than either sticking to the truth or creating an acknowledged work of fiction? The answer, or most of it, was money and popularity. Perhaps the truth was not dramatic or shocking enough to get the author on the Oprah Show or bring him fame and fortune, as the embellished version did. A select few authors are able to make a good living by writing; most do not.
My own memoir, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor, is factual. Have I been invited to present it on radio or TV? Of course not. Have I sold millions of copies? Of course not. However, the idea of faking my life story with tales of abuse and hardship or addiction or other dramatic subject matter never crossed my mind. On the other hand, my book is much less interesting than Frey's A Million Little Pieces, which I enjoyed reading even after it was exposed as not entirely true.
One of the most puzzling literary hoaxes I've encountered recently is that of Herman Rosenblat, who admitted fairly recently that his Holocaust love story is not true. This is the story that Oprah Winfrey called "the greatest love story" more than a decade ago. It involved a concentration camp experience in which prisoner Rosenblat regularly encountered and received an apple over the fence from a young girl named Roma, whom he met again later and married.
Actually, Rosenblat was imprisoned in a subcamp of Buchenwald, and he did marry a woman named Roma, but the story of their meetings at the wall was not true. The impossibility of the situation was revealed by Professor Ken Waltzer, director of Michigan State University's Jewish Studies problem, but his initial questions went unheeded. The story inspired a book deal, a movie, and a great deal of worldwide publicity.
Now the truth is out, and the publication of Rosenblat's memoir, Angel at the Fence, has been cancelled, although the movie is still in the planning stages. Rosenblat explains his motive this way: "I wanted to bring happiness to people, to remind them not to hate, but to love and tolerate all people. I brought good feelings to a lot of people, and I brought hope to many. My motivation was to make good in this world."
Was Herman Rosenblat blinded by fame and/or fortune? Why did he join the long line of literary fakers? As New Republic special correspondent Gabriel Sherman said, Rosenblat is really a Holocaust survivor who "didn't need to embellish his love story, because his own story is so powerful."
In a literary world so strongly motivated by the desire for fame and fortune, perhaps the desire to embroider the truth will always exist. But how about emphasizing the line between fact and fiction more strongly, and giving equal weight to both? Personally, I love fiction, based on the principle of "What if?" Most fiction has some basis in fact, but let's call it what it is. I would have been happy to read Angel at the Fence without any claims that the story actually happened.
Truth may be stranger than fiction, but not necessarily. Let's all take a vow of honesty and put accurate labels on what we write. Literary hoaxes are hard to hide in these days of information overload. Write fiction, or stick to the truth. Whichever you choose to read or write, give the other a chance.
For more information: http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/12/30/holocaust.hoax.love.story/