One-Minute Book Reviews

December 27, 2007

What’s the Difference Between Writing a Memoir and Writing Fiction? Quote of the Day (Mary Gordon)

The boundaries between memoirs and fiction are becoming more porous. Here’s how the novelist and memoirist Mary Gordon responded when an interviewer asked, “Is memoir writing not that much different from fiction writing?”

“It is and it isn’t. It has formal demands, demands of shapeliness in the way that fiction does. There are some things, which, if left out, would make an untruthful record. Memoir has a responsibility to the truth, or the truth as best you can tell it. That is to say, if you willfully suppressed something – well, there is no point writing a memoir if you don’t want to tell the truth as you see it. To deliberately fudge something that made you look better, or made someone else look better – that’s the kind of issue that comes up in memoir that does not come up in fiction.”

Mary Gordon in “Writing to Understand Yourself,” an interview with Charlotte Templin, in The Glimmer Train Guide to Writing Fiction: Inspiration and Discipline (Writer’s Digest Books, $19.99), edited by Susan Burmeister-Brown and Linda B. Swanson-Davies Gordon’s most recent memoir, Circling My Mother (Pantheon, $24), was published in August

Comment by Janice Harayda:

If only more memoirists shared Gordon’s view that there’s no point in “fudging.” You see much more distortion in memoirs today than a generation ago. Some memoirists say that they have to fudge to protect the privacy of friends or relatives, or that if they didn’t, they couldn’t tell their stories, because they lack too much essential information. Other writers contend that memoirs are inherently subjective. All of that may be true. But I’ve argued on this site that if memoirists set aside the truth – for example, by inventing scenes or using composite characters — they have a responsibility to say so in their books.

What do you think?

© 2007 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.


  1. […] was reminded of the back-and-forth argument when I came across this post at One Minute Book Reviews, which discusses the difference between writing a memoir and good fiction. I would also add, the […]

    Pingback by Is It Easier Writing About Yourself? « Sebastian Wallace’s Writing World — December 27, 2007 @ 3:31 pm | Reply

  2. What a great post! Thanks for sharing! I write a lot of nonfiction as well as fiction and so the line between these two genres has always held a particular interest for me.

    This topic actually reminds me of an anthology edited by Herta B. Feely entitled “Confessions: Fact or Fiction?” It’s an anthology that experiments with reader response and desire for literary works to be either fact or fiction. It is a compilation of short stories, some memoir and some fiction, from a variety of authors. However, the reader is not made aware of the genre of any of the stories until the end of the book.

    Here’s her website if you’re interested:

    Comment by K. C. Mead — July 26, 2012 @ 12:58 pm | Reply

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