Lauren Slater’s Lying occupies an interesting space within the world of creative nonfiction. Why, you ask? No, it’s not because it’s about a disease. No, it’s not even because Slater is an unreliable narrator.
In short, Lying is so special because, contrary to popular belief, it is quite possibly the single most honest creative non-fiction work in existence.
When asking about the validity of Lying as a non-fictional work, it is important to factor in Slater’s comment in chapter seven:
Everyone knows that a lot of memoirs have made-up scenes; it’s obvious. And everyone knows that half the time at least fictions contain autobiographical truths. So … does it even matter? (Slater 160)
Despite how late it comes in the book, this single quote forms the basis of Lying‘s genre classification. Slater makes it very clear that, despite our attempts to introduce an objective guideline to writing through the presence of genres, it is still as arbitrary as any “rule” placed on art. In a way, Slater is letting the cat out of the bag: memoirs are no more real than, say, professional wrestling. Those who write them would have us believe that all events contained within are absolutely true, when in reality, they are as fabricated as any novel.
Of course, this is not to say that Slater is innovative in any way. Hell, she admits that she isn’t–after all, she lets us know that memoirs before hers have had made-up scenes. In my previous work, Reality’s Author: Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and the Concept of the Nonfiction Novel, I discussed how the concept of “creative non-fiction” is a mere oxymoron. To attempt to blend the objectivity of non-fiction with the subjectivity of a novel is impossible, as the subjectivity of the novel–supported and reinforced by the inherent subjectivity of the human experience that a writer necessarily brings–will always shine through.
Therefore, authorial intent will always have an affect on the classification of genre–however, authorial intent will always lean towards the subjectivity of fiction. Any line separating fiction and non-fiction is arbitrary, as the latter will always be influenced by the former.
Of course, that brings us to the last line of Slater’s quote: does it even matter? Certainly, an employee at Barnes & Noble will tell you it does. However, on an artistic scale, genre does not matter. Any standard we wish to set for a genre will be–and, in many ways must be–broken at some point. Here, Slater is just admitting to those who would deny it that authors have been passing fiction off as non-fiction for years.
In conclusion, art is confusing. There are no rules, and if someone tries to tell you there are, they are either lying, or have been lied to. Sure, we can pretend that the concept of ‘genre’ actually matters in literature–but let’s keep it as pretend. I’m never going to truly believe that Hulk Hogan could defeat Andre the Giant. Why should I believe that Truman Capote knows what Herb Clutter ate for breakfast?