The biggest difference between fiction and memoir is that the latter is a truthful account of yourself or that of someone who you personally know. Memoir comes from the French word for memory and that is exactly what it is – a memory. It is your memory of usually a small part of the life you are portraying.
It is the memory of the person that is writing and will undoubtedly differ from the memories of others in the story. Is there a fictive element to memory? How much detail would the average person be expected to remember?
What is the difference between a memoir and an autobiography? An autobiography is your life story told chronologically in a factual way that is verifiable. It is not reliant on memory alone. A biography is the same but written about another person. Both tend to take in a longer span – often life.
What then is fiction? Fiction is made up. It is fantasy. The reader does not expect truth in the story. The reader will take greater leaps of faith when reading fiction than they will when reading memoir. In fiction the narrator can be anyone or anything such as in The Good Mayor by Andrew Nicholls the omnipotent St Walpurnia the long dead patron saint of the town. She features on everything throughout the town and is privy to everyone’s inner most thoughts and feelings. In memoir this ability to know the thoughts of everyone in the tale is not a possibility.
Memoir is limited to being written in first person (I) autobiography/memoir or third person (he/she) biography/memoir about someone known to the author. Any voice can be used in fiction and many pieces of fiction are written in the style of memoir. One example that always comes to mind is Eugenides Middlesex. It comes to mind because I chose it for my book club reading and numerous of the group found it so believable that they in turn could not be convinced it was not memoir.
I have a theory that most fiction is in fact memoir but disguised. Sometimes it may be written as it happened and only the names changed. In other instances two people’s character may be rolled into one, the location changed from the one where the event happened but to another place known to the author, or they may make up a fictitious scene – a conglomerate of many that are known to them. This is probably a bit simplistic as futuristic, sci-fi and fantasy cannot stem from life experience but the reader still has to form a relationship with the characters to gain enjoyment from the reading. The characters must have personality traits that we recognise and like or dislike.
Apart from truth a big difference between memoir and fiction is the liability that is created by each. In fiction there is virtually no case for slander, libel, fraud, copyright being served upon an author. It is fiction after all. It is made up and proving otherwise is difficult. Memoir however by its very premise leaves the author liable to a multitude of court cases that they are potentially at risk of. If the memoirist changes the names and possibly even the places with a disclaimer added in the author’s note that this has been done to protect the identities of the other people in the book, does the writing then leave the genre of memoir and become fiction?
Then do we need to look at other aspects of memoir? After all this is supposed to be a true story that has already happened. If it has already happened then the tense must be correct. First person past tense. There are other facets of the memoir that may render it not totally true and by the use of these are we memoirists actually writing fiction, or a new genre altogether?
These I will leave for another post. Thanks must go to Ann for writing some thought provoking posts which gave me a sleepless night, an epiphany and a frenzied day writing a conference paper which I have been struggling to start. Thanks also to Lisa and Charli both for running bite size memoir and 99 word flash fiction which led me to the conversations.