In discussing Herman Melville’s Typee: A Peep at Polynesian Life, David Samuels writes in Lapham’s Quarterly, “All literature is a species of fraud.” Authors routinely borrow from other sources and process first- and second-hand experiences through their imaginations. Melville was no exception.
Typee was originally published in 1846 as a travelogue purporting to describe the author’s four months on a Polynesian island. Soon after publication, however, reviewers questioned the accuracy of the story, with one prominent review “dismiss[ing] it as a ‘piece of Munchausenism.’”
Apparently, like the “sock-puppets” we have today, Melville defended his credibility in anonymous articles. According to Samuels, “The suggestion that Typee was a fraud stung Melville deeply.” Yes, he took creative liberties with the details of his time on the island, but he otherwise believed in the truths behind his autobiographical fiction.
I read Samuels’ piece with more recent examples of literary lies in mind, such as the disgraced James Frey’s embellished memoir and the beloved J. K. Rowling’s impersonation of an ex-military police officer.
There’s nothing wrong with adding creative touches to nonfiction or assuming a pseudonym, as long as the resulting books are marketed appropriately. As I said on this blog back when we first learned about the famous woman behind ex-military police officer “Robert Galbraith,” “We don’t expect a fictional novel to be real between the covers, but we do expect the text on the front and back to reflect the truth about the book’s origin.” In that case, “Galbraith’s” biography, which was almost entirely a fabrication, claimed that the idea for the main character “grew directly” from the [fake] author’s “experiences.”
A fake author bio that suggests a work of fiction is based on first-hand fact is a problem from a consumer protection angle. So is a memoir or travelogue that is closer to fiction than to real-life. Sometimes that happens inadvertently–the effects of memory over time–but deviations from the truth shouldn’t be intentional. If the front and back covers indicate that the content of the book is factually accurate, then that’s what readers should get. After all, it is often one of the factors that convinces consumers to spend their hard-earned money on that book instead of one of the others on the shelves.
These days, it seems like most people refer to Melville’s Typee as a novel, not a memoir or travelogue, thus resolving the controversy around its authenticity. The struggle behind the marketing of that novel nearly 170 years ago is one that many authors probably identify with today. Saying a book is based in fact might increase sales, but authors and publishers take a risk when they lie. Nobody wants to be accused of “Munchausenism,” right?
Not that it’s unusual to twist the truth sometimes. We do it for a variety of reasons, from sparing someone’s feelings (“hey, that’s a great haircut!”) to keeping ourselves out of trouble (“I swear, the dog ate my homework!”). But some lies are worse than others, and among the more pernicious examples are the ones that manipulate people into making purchasing decisions based on false information (a/k/a consumer fraud).
Other fabrications might not be such a big deal.
On that note, today’s my 28th birthday! It’s not a total lie. I don’t feel any older than that. 😉