So another mighty memoirist has fallen. I'm probably not the only one to feel completely unsurprised by this development--and also not terribly surprised that it was Riverhead who was re-suckered. (Full disclosure: they used to be my publisher, but rejected my third novel because it was "odd.") When you live by the lurid confessional, you die by the lurid confessional--or in this case, continue dragging your moribund ass into the future by the lurid confessional.
Perhaps the publishing industry should be asking itself whether inadequate fact-checking is not, in fact, the real problem. Its dismay is akin to that of the sad couple who, after inviting their alcoholic uncle to their wedding and providing him with an open bar, cannot understand how he could be so rude as to drink himself sick and vomit all over the bridesmaids. Publishers are in the habit of paying enormous advances to people who can provide them with extraordinary life experiences, and so what do you think is going to happen? People are going to generate some, that's what.
I was talking to the writer Paul Lisicky today (interview here) about this very thing. He's a guy with a fairly regular life, who managed to write a wonderful memoir about it. What's extraordinary about Paul is not his experience (gay coming-of-age, abortive church-music recording career) but about the way he has chosen to see that experience. His book is good for the reason that all good books are good--the world is interesting to him, and it is interesting to hear him talk about it. It's people like Paul whom publishers should be rewarding--people who, with their work, can show readers that their own lives are valuable, that their own experience is worth treasuring, and analyzing, and talking about--instead of people who pretend to be what they're not. Good writers enrich readers. The value of their work extends outside itself. It offers a new paradigm for understanding the world.
The ironic thing is that every memoir is fictional, in a way--memory is an elusive thing, and all experience is subjective. But the good memoirist enters into a contract with his reader, a contract that goes something like this: "Though we both understand that this account is not objectively true, I, the writer, will do my best to present you with the world as I know it, in the most interesting possible way; and in exchange, you, the reader, will give me the benefit of the doubt." The more prominent writers break the contract, the fewer readers are likely to buy into it in the future. The entire genre is brought low by these lies, and while I certainly don't applaud the writers who are doing the lying, I have far less respect for the publishers who keep them in business.
Personally, I am too uncomfortable with the vagaries of memory, at least for now, to write anything but fiction. But I applaud people like Paul for managing to make art out of life, even if they didn't escape from Attica or balloon across Siberia. Bring your copy of "Love And Consequences" back to the store and pick up his book instead.