In my new book, How to Be Inappropriate
, I bring together pieces of writing that are called "creative nonfiction." It's an after-the-fact term coined by Lee Gutkind
around 1970 that covers essay, first-person journalism, and memoir.
A good chunk of my new book is memoir. So, like everyone else these days, I had to include a memoir disclaimer.
Let me back up. Some people hate this term "creative nonfiction." In a 2007 piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Toor airs her objections both to the descriptor "creative," which to her mind implies that it's acceptable to write nonfiction that is somehow "invented" or made up, and the noun "nonfiction," which represents a term "so vexed that it masks the difficulties with the word "nonfiction" — i.e., that we are defined by what we are not." Ten years before in the October 1997 issue of Vanity Fair, James Wolcott famously described the world of creative nonfiction as "a big, earnest blob of me-first sensibility," and the term a "sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction."
At first, the debate over the merits of the creative nonfiction term restricted itself to the hand-wringing of academics.
Then the James Frey/Oprah Winfrey affair went down, which I won't re-hash here.
Safe to say everybody possessed an opinion on memoirs and autobiography, truth and truthiness. It was an unseemly time, if you ask me. Readers and critics, normally content to read memoirs, now demanded a tour of every writer's sausage factory. Memoirists were held to truth-telling standards higher than that of journalists who report on things like the Iraq war and healthcare legislation.
Enter the memoir disclaimer.
Since Frey and other memoirists have been exposed as fabricating some of the facts, there's been more and more of an impulse, be it editors or the memoirists themselves, to include a paragraph-length apologia in their books, something akin to legal language that says to the effect that names have been changed, every effort has been made to tell the truth, sorry if I got things wrong, this disclaimer ensures that I am covered, yadda yadda yadda. In the Guardian, Chris Ayres talks about the drive to disclaimer-izing post-Frey. Jerry Waxler offers a nice survey of disclaimers in some recent memoirs.
As if to underscore this legalistic impulse, a disclaimer may appear on a book's copyright page with other fine print. Other times a disclaimer appears at the end of the book, alongside the acknowledgments and the index.
If we take away the obvious bad apples who pluck things out of thin air to include in their memoir, readers and writers enter the more nuanced issue of truth in memoir, something Ben Yagoda covers quite well in his new book Memoir: A History. The trouble with applying legalistic, even journalistic, truth to a memoir is that a person's truth, how they remember and shape their life, is always relative, always changing. "Like the elements, individual man never is but is always becoming," James Olney writes in Metaphors of Self, his essential study of autobiography.
It seems that readers should know already that memoirs are works of art, not minutes from a sewage board meeting, that if it is revealed that daddy spanked the memoirist's left, not right buttock, some leeway should be given. But the disclaimer craze continues.
So when I was putting together my own book, I figured I had to include a disclaimer, as much as I was opposed to the idea of it. Luckily, in a book of humorous nonfiction, the stakes are a bit lower. So I took the pedantic smart-aleck route. Here is my disclaimer, quoted in full:
This book is a collection of creative nonfiction, which Lee Gutkind, the godfather of the genre, defines as "nonfiction that employs techniques like scene, dialogue, description, while allowing personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity." I do not claim to be objective, but whenever I have determined it was necessary, I have changed names, details, and determining characteristics of people and places to avoid hurting anyone. I also present myself as a character, persona, or omniscient narrator-in-retrospect, either to make myself look better, smarter, or more or less sympathetic or inappropriate than I am in person. Every writer of this genre does this, but I thought you should know.
"That seems to cover it," I emailed my editor when I sent it in. If I get something wrong in, say, my essay on mooning, lawsuits won't come out of the woodwork. Still, even humorous memoirists such as Augusten Burroughs have affixed butt-covering language. So I am in good company.
Perhaps I should provide a disclaimer for each blog post as well.
But don't you trust me?