Hustvedt lectures on literary truth

Posted by Noam Dagan & Jean-Ann Kubler

At 8 p.m. on Feb. 22, prize-winning novelist and memoirist Siri Hustvedt presented a lecture and panel discussion titled "Memoir vs. Fiction," in Emerson Auditorium. The auditorium was above capacity and many were not able to find seating.

Hustvedt is the author of three critically acclaimed novels, and several books of memoirs. The New York Times Book Review praised her most recent work, "The Shaking Woman or a History of My Nerves."

English professor Robert Boyers introduced Hustvedt, who began her talk by addressing the contract between writers and readers of memoir and fiction.

Hustvedt spoke about the current public fascination with memoir, which is echoed in the popularity of reality television and celebrity gossip. Readers of memoir, according to Hustvedt, expect that writers are not openly deceiving them. There is no such expectation from the readers of fiction, Hustvedt said.

Although readers may not expect truth from fiction writers, Hustvedt said a good fiction writer does capture some form of the truth.

"Some novels do lie, the good ones do not," Hustvedt said. The truth a fiction writer may tell is not held to the same standard as the truth told by memoirists because a memoir can be fact-checked, Hustvedt said.

"We are not talking about truth with a capital ‘T'," she said. Rather, the importance is the truth of the feeling of the work, Hustvedt said.

Hustvedt spoke about the fallibility of human memory and how it is nearly impossible for any human to recall his or her experiences in full detail. For this reason, she said, dialogue in memoir is often true to the nature of a real conversation, but not necessarily a factual account.

Memory is inherently subjective, Hustvedt said, and no two people recollect the same events in exactly the same detail.

The difficulty of memory's subjectivity is scientifically documented, Hustvedt said, and the same parts of the brain control memory and imagination.

Hustvedt spoke about an example of memory's fallibility in her personal life. She said her husband and daughter have strikingly different accounts of when her daughter first decided to be a performer, and neither of their accounts are the same as Hustvedt's.

Following her lecture, Hustvedt asked for questions from the featured panel, which included Visiting Assistant professor of English Melora Wolf, Senior Writer-in-Residence Greg Hrbek and Boyers. All three panelists teach English courses related to non-fiction writing.

The panel members asked questions regarding intentional lies, misremembering and poetic license. They also asked Hustvedt to discuss the different discoveries a writer may make through fiction and through memoir.

Hustvedt said the freedom of fiction often allows her to be more open in her personal discoveries and unlock material from her unconscious.

Memoir, Hustvedt said, can limit the potential of personal discovery because the writer is often concerned with protecting a story's real-life subjects.

Hustvedt then asked for questions from the audience. Russell Banks, a notable author, was in the audience and contributed to the discussion.

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