At the moment, Herman Rosenblat's apocryphal memoir Angel at the Fence is about as popular as it possibly could be and it's not even published. The hubbub surrounding the heartwarming Holocaust story proves that there's no such thing as bad publicity. Similar controversies have surfaced in the last decade and you can be sure they won't be the last. James Frey's Oprah-touched A Million Little Pieces and just about anything produced by JT Leroy, himself a fictional character as it turns out, are the ones that come to mind first. So the questions that have been whispered around but not addressed directly are these; "What is the harm in claiming a fictional story, though loosely informed by true events, is actually true? Does or should a memoirist have more ethical considerations than a novelist? To whom should a fraudulent memoirist be responsible?" I would not presume to say that I can answer any of these questions, but I would like to at least consider them.
What is the harm in claiming a fictional story is actually true?
A reader, any reader, is in a precarious, almost dangerous position. She is a slave to context. When an author claims that a story happened or it didn't, she has no choice but to take the apparent facts for granted. What different world this would be if stories by, say, Stephen King were purported to be true. No one would leave their homes! This is where bookstores come in handy. For our convenience, they have separated their titles into neat mega-sections of Fiction and Non-Fiction. So a reader knows the credulity of her purchase before she has even found the book she is looking for. Arguably, different amounts and kinds of emotional energy are tapped by a story depending on its veracity. It might be a terrifying book, but I can sleep at night without fearing that Pennywise will devour me in the darkness. Night, on the other hand, might make me lose faith in humanity for a time and then restore it back to me at the most unexpected moment. So when a reader picks up a memoir, she has prepared herself for a certain kind of investment before she reads the first line. She expects to connect with the experience of another living, breathing, and (more often than not) pitiable human being.
When a Holocaust survivor prepares herself to read Rosenblat's story under the pretext that it is a true story, there is a certain level of betrayal that accompanies the revelation that it is not. While considering another's experiences, a reader invariably considers herself and her own experiences. In the case when the reader makes a strong connection with the story--for example, when a victim of child prostitution or AIDS or violence against transgenderism reads JT Leroy's stories--the feeling of being emotionally exposed and exploited is certainly warranted. In Rosenblat's case, he really was in a concentration camp and his future wife did really live not too far from his situation, so the sense of betrayal is considerably less. He has not tried to use the suffering of others to cash in on that attention because they were sufferings he actually shared. He did distort the truth, however, in order to exploit his audience's statistically demonstrated love of fairy tale endings. At the most, his actions are reprehesible but he has done relatively little harm. It does make me wonder, though, why he did not first pitch the story as fictional and then claim later that it was loosely based on his own experiences. That would have sky-rocketed him to being the darling of the reading world!
Does or should a memoirist have more ethical considerations than a novelist?
The question of ethics has always been a sticky subject when applied to writers. As long as an author does not claim a work that is not actually hers most audiences can forgive just about any trespass. This is, of course, only a common denominator between many different schools of thought. Among countless different beliefs, there are many who believe authors of both fiction and non-fiction have an obligation to be moral guideposts for their readers (which necessarily raises the question "Whose morals?"). Then there are those who subscribe to the belief that all writers have political agendas and then still others who follow the ideal of "art for art's sake." There are disagreements between these schools of thought that are not likely to be reconciled any time soon, but each can more or less agree that plagiarism is a no-no on a career ending scale. So to ask whether one kind of writer has more considerations than another is getting into pretty murky territory.
Social experiments aside, the most likely reason to say a story is true when it is not is to make money. Making money is not a bad thing in itself, but when a product is sold under false or exaggerated pretenses you go from being a liar, which harms mostly only the self, to a thief, which harms mostly other people. There's even a legal term for it, it's called false advertising. In this respect, a memoirist does turn out to have more to consider than a novelist, if only of a legal nature. Oh what wicked webs we weave when first we practice to deceive!
To whom should a fraudulent memoirist be responsible?
Unfortunately, it seems that people like Rosenblat, Frey, and Leroy seem only to prosper when a scandal is discovered concerning their work. With their names forever in the spotlight, consumers decide they need to read the work to see what all the fuss is about (think The Producers). The most they seem to suffer is a wag of the finger and a few well-known strangers telling them how despicable their lies have been. In a free society, like the one we're supposed to have, an individual is ultimately responsible to herself but that hardly satisfies the blood lust of those who have been personally offended or betrayed by the fraud committed. Rosenblat might be able to escape with his life, but should we set Leroy among real AIDS victims or Frey in the midst of recovering alcoholics and drug addicts and reformed criminals? Perhaps that would be a most just punishment that would fit their crime. Since they have done no bodily harm to any of their victims, the response can not be bodily either. They (Rosenblat to a much lesser extent than the other two) have violated the dignity of people who have suffered real tragedies and continue to suffer them on a daily basis. They should have to look those people in the eye and explain why they lied the way they did to millions of people and said it was true.