Monday, March 10, 2008

Mary Sue Memoirs

A Mary Sue, in fanfiction, is an author who inserts herself into the story as an original character. There are many ways to identify the Mary Sue; it usually includes a Tragic Backstory as well as feeling Terribly Sorry for the Mary Sue.

As I read about the recent fake memoirs, especially Margaret Jones/Seltzer, it struck me -- these are Mary Sue memoirs! Except instead of being fanfiction about fiction (TV, Movies, books) it's fanfiction about real events; with the writer needing to be a part of the story. Better yet -- as the New York Times puts it, they need to steal another's suffering.


There is a huge difference between having your own version of your childhood and your life, and, oh, changing the version so now you're a foster child instead of a child of privilege, or, better yet, rather than being raised by uncaring adults, you're being raised by caring wolves. Regarding the first, anyone who has siblings has seen this firsthand, as you compare childhood stories and realize that your memories don't always mesh. We, the readers, get it; why don't the publishers and those who defend the Mary Sue Memoirs?

Thanks to MediaBistro - Galleycat, I find some of the worst nonsense defending these Mary Sue Memoirs. It's not quite the "anytime a person writes it's fiction, get over it" argument I've read (good-bye, non-fiction!), but it's just as bad, as some Self Important Ivory Tower person says, it's ludicrous to expect memoir to be "documentary truth." Rather what is important is whether it is "meaningful" or has "higher truths". By using this definition, we get to sidestep the issue that Real Former Gang Members or Real Holocaust survivors are the ones with the "truths" and facts to be writing the memoirs, while the rest of us who want to write about these things can do so using fiction.

And, of course, it gets both better and sadder. Because both of the most recent memoirs were about people living the Mary Sueness well before any book deal. Seltzer/Jones went so far as to involve her child, who either (a) was raised believing this or (b) was taught to lie for the nice reporters from the New York Times.

I used to wonder why the Little House books were not published as non-fiction. Her name was Laura; she had a sister named Mary; she really lived in those places. But Laura Ingalls Wilder and the publishing world back then knew the difference between fiction and non-fiction. It makes perfect sense, now, just why those childhood stories are in the fiction.


Robin Brande said...

Great post! I don't understand it when people are not upset by fake memoirs. Come ON! I'm willing to be inspired by either fictional characters or real ones--and there are plenty of fictional characters out there whom I totally want to be--but it's only fair to tell us ahead of time which is which. When it's a lie, it defeats all the good stuff you might have gotten out of the story. You just feel cheated and slimed.

Never heard of the "Mary Sue" thing. How funny.

Liz B said...

I like reading history, and biography. And I like reading novels.

So I truly don't get the whole one thing is better than the other; tho I do understand the "why" I like history better than some historic fiction.

Example, I guess, is comparing the 2 historical fiction books that came out a few years ago, Spinelli's Milkweed and Orlev's Run Boy Run. Orlev's ending ran more true to me than Spinelli's, and (wrong tho I may be) I attributed part of it to Orlev writing with more authenitcity and Spinellis' knowledge coming from books and research and imagining. So in that way -- yes I value "real" over "fiction".


Many times, in order to tell a good story, a novel trumps because the events and people can be crafted. Even with my example above, Orlev's book (as all his books are) was fiction. And I'm not saying that someone has to live thru something for them to be able to write about it; Spinellis was just too "oh this would break any child" to me, when the reality was maybe it broke that child, but it didn't break every child.

It's interesting to me how publishers value memoir over novel; and I think while publishers say, memoir isn't about facts but meaning or whatever, perhaps publishers believe a memoir can be less fact checked than a biography?

And if people want real stories - the real story of the girl growing up a gang member in LA - what's wrong with that? The wrong to me is not that people want the real story -- but that someone whose story it isn't took it and pretended.

So, now I'm waiting for the memoir about writing a fake memoir. Or, better yet, a memoir about wanting to write a fake memoir.

Suddenly, I'm remembering one of my favorite movies that also touches on these issues, Adaptation, just in the context of making something into a movie and at what point fact gets fictionalized.

Kelly said...

Great post, Liz. But, I have to say that I'm one of those people who isn't that bothered by the fake memoir issue from a literary/genre perspective.

All memoirs have some degree of fiction in them. I just wish we didn't consider them non-fiction in the same way we consider history and biography to be non-fiction. Because they're just not. No matter how hard a writer tries for the "truth."

Now, don't get me wrong. I think this particular case is repulsive because the author appropriates race, class, and all sorts of things she shouldn't. I sure wouldn't want to meet her or read her book. And, I think she should be exposed. That being said...I don't think it brings down the genre of memoir, particularly in this era of "personal truth."

Ever since "personal truth" (is Ophrah guilty for this phrase? I feel like she may be, but I could be wrong) the memoir has been even more compromised than it was before. Because, what is "personal truth" as opposed to truth? "Personal truth" is feelings, plain and simple, while truth is something different. (I don't want to even think about what "truth" is!)

So, to sum up: the fake memoir thing bothers me only so much in that I think their authors are losers, but I don't mourn for the genre at all.

Kelly said...

Ummm...make that Oprah :)