Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Should Lance Armstrong's books be rebranded as fiction?

Reports that a library reclassified the cyclist's autobiographies turned out to be false – but, then again, most memoirs play around with the truth. And novels often sail close to reality

The sign put up in a Sydney library suggesting it had reclassified Lance Armstrong's two autobiographies as fiction has, disappointingly, turned out to be a prank. But it can't be long before some reader – or publisher for that matter – joins the queue of those wanting to sue Armstrong for breach of contract. Or can it?

Most autobiographies of well-known people tend to be a little "economical with the actualité", as the politician and diarist Alan Clark once described his answers to parliamentary questions about export licences to Iraq during the Matrix Churchill trial. The desire to spin events in the most favourable way and to conveniently forget minor details, such as extra-marital affairs, can be overwhelming. But does omission necessarily turn a work of non-fiction into fiction? Or does all non-fiction occupy a morally dubious hinterland where what's written isn't necessarily all true or untrue? Clearly, Armstrong played rather more freely with versions of the truth than most, but he could possibly argue that he was still operating within accepted limits.

After all, if Armstrong is to be found guilty of misrepresentation of genre, then perhaps some novelists ought to be feeling a little anxious about their fiction. Edward St Aubyn's Patrick Melrose series is closer to autobiography than any thing that Armstrong has ever written. As are Melvyn Bragg's seemingly interminable quartet of novels about a brilliant, working-class young man with an equally brilliant head of hair, who was forced to leave the small town of Wigtown in Cumbria, where horses and carts clip-clopped outside his privy, to fulfil his potential as one of the greatest broadcasters of his age.

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