Literary Lambs Dressed as Mutton: Broadway’s Seminar

November 21, 2011 § 2 Comments


A  guest post from Virginia Lloyd :

Can some memoirs be considered a form of literary transvestism? This is the intriguing implication of a satirical set-piece on memoir in Theresa Rebeck’s new play Seminar.

Alan Rickman plays Leonard, an acclaimed novelist and fiction editor who teaches a weekly master class to four graduate writing students in the sumptuous rent-controlled apartment belonging to the family of one of the students, Kate. Gruff and exacting, Leonard lights up at a few paragraphs of erotically charged fiction by the alluring Izzy, but accuses Douglas, who has a story forthcoming in the New Yorker, of being competent but insanely dull to read. Kate crumbles at Leonard’s withering assessment of the story she has been failing to finish for years, while her best friend Martin is too contemptuous and fearful to show anyone his work.

A few weeks later, Kate hands Leonard a wad of pages she says were written by a college friend. A former boy soldier in his home country, he is now writing a memoir combining his childhood experiences of war and his more recent experiences as a cross-dresser. Leonard, gripped by what he’s reading, agrees to Kate’s proposal that her friend take her place in the class. After Leonard leaves, Kate reveals that she wrote the pages and intends to sell the work as a memoir.

Douglas, outraged, argues with Kate about the ethics and economics of publishing a false memoir. He says that because the story is a complete fiction, she should be ashamed of herself for planning to dupe readers. Kate contends that the more extreme the personal circumstances that prompt a memoir, the better it is for getting publicity. It doesn’t matter if the story isn’t true, she says, because the financial rewards and the public’s attention – what David Shields in Reality Hunger calls the “double-crested roller coaster of celebrity and infamy” – will be enough for her.

The too-regular publication of false memoirs over the past 20 years have made the genre vulnerable to these sorts of reductive jokes, and the audience laughs knowingly. But the exchange felt dated to me, especially in its assumption that only fiction can so powerfully move and influence readers. It seems nostalgic to insist on strict divisions between fiction and nonfiction writing in the age of infinite information and reality television.

More interesting was the cross-dressing detail in Kate’s fictional characterisation of the boy-soldier memoirist. The implication of her literary hoax is that the best possible writer of memoir is actually a writer of fiction. The fiction writer alone is capable of imagining the kinds of extreme stories that appeal to the reading public, and that readers would prefer a story “passing” as true instead of a true story. Teasing out this argument, it follows that some memoirs – notably the kind that attract the attention that Kate craves and so few novels command – could be considered a form of literary transvestism. A literary version of the idea that the best kind of woman is a man dressed as a woman, adapted to the alleged rivalry between fiction and nonfiction.

One would hope that the ability to craft compelling stories is at the heart of any writer’s project. Yet fiction passing as nonfiction rightly remains taboo in a way that the reverse is not: many works published today as memoirs, for example, would likely have appeared as novels in previous publishing eras. Like it or not, the market conditions for storytelling have changed, and literary cross-dressing might increasingly be part of the future. But such transvestism is a matter of style rather than kind, an attention to detail in dressing that does not confuse truth in storytelling with genre. Writing that reflects the world we live in, that connects with readers, remains a difficult and worthy challenge, no matter whether you dress in fiction or nonfiction.

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Virginia Lloyd is the author of the memoir The Young Widow’s Book of Home Improvement and a nonfiction blog at www.virginialloyd.com.

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§ 2 Responses to Literary Lambs Dressed as Mutton: Broadway’s Seminar

  • […] writers in Theresa Rebeck’s “Seminar” I’m excited that my first guest post on the terrific Brevity blog is now online. It’s a riff on a satirical attack on […]

  • Brilliant analysis of the so-called fiction/memoir divide in which memoirists wear the black hats and fictionists the white. I’m reminded that there are two views of memoir’s complex integrity: NY and the rest of America. What’s so odd about this is its counterintuitive flip: NY (see Times book reviewers/Kakutani especially) is the provincial voice with its Eiffel towering of fiction over grubby/dishonest personal narrative while everywhere else we know memoir as its own genre, not dependent on fiction for its definition. In my 20 years of memoir work, invariably the person who disparages this form is what I call the East Coast literary conservative. Yes, writers are often socially liberal and artistically conservative, even right-wing in their treasuring of Literature. Hmm. Sounds like an article I should write. TL

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