Jonathan Franzen on Memory and Memoir

Franzen discusses fiction, non-fiction and the need to draw the distinction.
  • Transcript


Question: What role does memory play in your work?

Jonathan Franzen: There were some moments when I was writing this personal history I published, when it became clear to me that my memory was very unreliable and I’d always thought it was titanically reliable and it was a ice breaker of a memory compared to the flimsy tenuous memories of other people of my family. I could be relied on to know the date, know the place, know the circumstance.

But when I was doing this--for want of a better word--memoir, I had to fact check it because most of my friends and family were around. And I could fact check this stuff and it was jaw dropping. Things that I remembered more vividly than my own high school graduation or first day of college, the stuff that I had clear crystal memories of these things, never happened.  Never happened.

So that was very humbling. But it’s much more fun to make fun of other people’s inability to know than one’s own. So I’ve gone back to doing that.

Question: Does it matter if the memory existed a certain way for you?

Jonathan Franzen: If you say this is nonfiction, it matters a lot because that’s what nonfiction is. It’s stuff that is verifiable in some way and if it can’t be verified. If you don’t make an effort to verify it, it shouldn’t be called nonfiction.

It seems pretty straightforward because nonfiction has all of these advantages, you get this _______________ when you read something and you know, oh this really happened. And then you have been betrayed if it turns out, no, it didn’t really happen, it’s just the way that author remembered it happening.

That sense of betrayal comes from the freeloading that one does as a writer. When one labels something nonfiction, you’re getting something for free, the reader is giving you a gift of excitement and credulity because it really happened. But you have to hold up your side of the bargain.

So it matters a lot I think.

Nothing’s perfect and good storytellers get away with a lot. But the only honest way to do that is by leaving stuff out, not by making stuff up.

Question: Can memoir be its own category?

Jonathan Franzen: I think in common parlance when something says memoir on the cover, people assume it’s nonfiction.

So if you put a disclaimer up front and say, "This is just how I remember it, there’s probably a lot here that didn’t happen this way but this is the memories I have, which would be true to the actual word memoir." I think that would be different. That would be a useful disclaimer to see. But, no, I think now when you see memoir, you assume it’s what happened.

Recorded On: April 1, 2008