« A "What's Wrong With … | Home | What I'm Thankful For… »

What Did You Say? - The Dialogue Problem and Memoirs

(To read the entire "War Memoirs" series, please click here.)

I got some push back from our loyal readers (which I love, I don’t claim to have a monopoly on the truth. Keep us honest) last week when I revealed my hatred for the memoir.

First, a clarification. When I write about memoirs, I am specifically writing about literary memoirs or the "non-fiction novel." This phrase "non-fiction novel" is a contradiction, an oxymoron, yet the genre has become very popular. As I said last week, it has almost overtaken the novel as the predominant literary form.

The memoir is a sub-class of autobiography. I have nothing against autobiography. In comparison, an autobiography is usually longer, and more expansive. Most importantly, most long form autobiography isn't written like a novel. I have nothing against people (such as politicians, soldiers, and celebrities) sharing their experiences, I just want them to choose the right form.

Three of the memoirs I read--Jarhead, The War I Always Wanted, and Soft Spots--should have been novels. Instead these memoirs, written in the style of a novel but restrained by reality, end up doing silly things. Which brings me to the dialogue problem.

The dialogue problem is this: every war memoir I read recently contains dialogue, and usually a lot of it. Unless the authors recorded their conversations as they had them, they wrote their dialogue from memory. Or they made it up entirely.

The catch is, memoirs are true. They are non-fiction. You aren’t supposed to make things up. Is the dialogue true, or mostly true? Or mostly false? Or thematically true to what war felt like, but factually untrue? If you are going to make things up, why not just write a novel, albeit one mostly based on your life like Hemingway or Mailer?

Let me put forward a comparison. I randomly opened up each of the five memoirs I have read so far:
- On page 84 of Jarhead, the narrator has a conversation that takes up a page and goes back and forth 12 times.
- Next, I opened Soft Spots, page 48 I found the narrator having a conversation with a Sergeant in Iraq on patrol. This was on my second try of randomly opening the book.
- In The War I Always Wanted, page 186, conversation at night after a bruising attack.
- Page 248 of One Bullet Away, conversation in an Iraqi village during what I believe was the invasion.
- Page 82 of The Unforgiving Minute, dialogue from a Ranger instructor.

The point is I found dialogue on almost every other page, almost always in situations where dictation would be impossible. Compare this to Winston Churchill’s five volume autobiography and history of World War II; I’m flipping through it right now and I can't find a page with dialogue. I'd bet each of the above memoirs has more dialogue than Churchill's entire opus.

Something has changed in the world of writing to make this stylistic inaccuracy acceptable. Well, it isn't to me. I'd like my autobiographies written by statesman and historians, and our memories to be written by novelists and poets.

One comment

I agree. The use of most dialogue in memoirs should be taken by the reader and presented by the writer and a representation of what was said. It’s rare that we remember every word of a conversation and even rarer if we remember every conversation over the period of a month.