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Tuesday, 30 June 2009
Fiction, Fact, and Faked Memoirs

by Thomas Larson (July 2009)


Never let the truth get in the way of a good story is the claim every storyteller is admonished to believe. What our ten-thousand-year-old tale-telling tradition (most of it oral) instructs us to do is to be good dramatists and let the story have its sway. This law of the tale, and our drama-loving DNA, is why the Bible has survived so long: its well-told stories were the means by which its morally sound messages were delivered and, tellers and scribes hoped, stuck. When disputes about a story’s authenticity arose, the Bible authors were less keen to preserve history or embrace veracity than to make the drama central, via legend, fantasy, parable, and the fictionalized life, based on Egyptian mythology, reified as well as purified, of Jesus Christ. The Bible is a work of narrative literature and a work of fiction. But, the problem is, its fiction has almost always been thought of as fact. more>>>

Posted on 06/30/2009 5:51 PM by NER
24 Jul 2009

Larson writes, “What we need do—and I realize this is a huge demand—is distinguish between what happened and what we think happened or wanted to happen or convinced ourselves did happen. The memoirist has to tell his tale from the undeceiving now in which his awareness about the past is as full a part of his story as the past itself is.”

Because of the very high standard Mr Larson has set for himself in this article, Mr Larson has opened himself up for criticism of incidental details such as his perhaps sloppy reference to bible stories. If it weren’t for the very nature of his theme, I think those of us who commented on the biblical references would have noticed them less, and let them pass without comment.

Those of us who did comment on what we see as incidental errors in an otherwise good work are therefore honoring Mr Larson as a writer by taking him up on his word. Keep writing, Mr Larson, and keep researching. Your devotion to honesty in writing is refreshing and necessary. Keep perfecting it.

10 Jul 2009
Send an emailHarry Huntsman

There probably was a small town Jewish teacher named Jesus since within a century of his reported death at least two dozen fictionalized accounts (gospels) of his life were circulated. I am an ordained Methodist minister (retired), rewriting my memoir following Thomas Larson guidelines.

Harry Huntsman


10 Jul 2009
Send an emailArt Campbell

Having read Mr. Larson's definitive book on memoirs before I published my own, I felt his constant lash against my Posi (Parasite of self-importance) and found his wisdom undeniable.  This article, rounding up the latest zeitgeist, bristles with his insights as it blooms in scintilitaing prose.  I'm sorry his provocative opening reference to the Bible caused hysteria in some readers, so they overlooked or his rare and precious gems.

6 Jul 2009
Send an emailVirg Erwin


I am constantly inspired by Thomas Larson’s unique style of prose, conveying his exhaustive and thorough investigation of facts. Irrefutable facts, documented facts, are so important to an author’s credibility.
Thomas Larson’s reproach on faked memoirs remind me of his lectures at UCSD, imploring students to dreg up memories from the gut, and then tell them with integrity. His message was that any memoir can be interesting if well written, but it is sentence structure, word choice and character arc that creates great reading, not fictionalized events.
Thomas Larson’s lessons of integrity are ingrained in me. My war memoir was rejected by a major publisher who said there wasn’t enough violent action—not enough boom-boom. War is like that—most of the time—ninety percent boredom and tension, only ten percent boom-boom.
I could have invented some adrenalin packed action to sell my story. The motivation would be to attract a publisher, see my five years of labor in print. But I wouldn’t be able to face my comrades, those still alive, with invented heroics and lies. These men are as much a part of my conscience as is Thomas Larson, a professor of integrity with style.
Virg Erwin

5 Jul 2009

The author's reflections on current faked memoirs are engaging, but I, like others, notice historical problems in the first paragraph.

Higher criticism (analyzing the historical sources and contexts of biblical texts) is a pastime of mine, and so I know it's just not historically accurate to call the biblical story of Jesus a "fictionalized life, based on Egyptian mythology".

Even the most atheistic of biblical scholars will tell you that, whatever the Jesus story is, it’s not "based on Egyptian mythology". The historical context of the Jesus story is simply quite different.

I think the author is making an honest mistake here: people looking for a non-religious interpretation of the Jesus story often first notice that resurrection myths of some sort have a long history, going back to the Ancient Egyptian myth of Osiris. But to suppose that shallow similarities like these mean that the Gospel story is based on Egyptian mythology is to do history a disservice. It is to fictionalize history much as Dan Brown did in the Da Vinci Code. Judging from the author’s entire article, I doubt this is something the author deliberately wished to do.

For the Wikipedia article on Higher Criticism, please see

2 Jul 2009
Send an emailLaurel Corona

 Many thanks to Thomas Larson for pointing out  that readers (and, before them, agent and editors) seem to want  real life not to deviate too much from the kinds of storylines found in sentimental fiction.  I suppose most of us want our personal story to seem as interesting as possible, whether we tell it over a beer with friends or in a book.  Point of view characters are supposed to be likable and have an edifying message. Anything else is likely to be  DOA with publishers.   So what do we have as a result?  Immense pressure to tailor memoir to what we (and others) prefer the storyline to be.

Larson is generous in his explanation of how memory can deceive, and how personal needs can color the telling of  a story.  I think it's important not to be overly critical when subjectivity  introduces flaws into a memoir whose author is clearly trying to be honest and accurate. Calculated fakery is another matter, however, and I hope that the negative consequences of exposure are sufficient to keep this kind of self-serving literary "photoshopping" from destroying public confidence in the genre.


2 Jul 2009

Thanks, dumbledoresarmy, for writing such a detailed response to an opening paragraph I found to be either a profoundly naive attempt to add an historical precedent to the premise, or just a throwaway soapbox pronouncement, disjointed from the rest of the article.  "Never let the truth get in the way of a good story" cuts both ways, Mr Larson.

1 Jul 2009

I am sorry, but I find Mr Larson's opening paragraph beneath contempt, because of the astonishing shallowness and breathtaking arrogance of the sweeping claim with which he opens, that the entirety of the TaNaKh, and of the Gospels, not to mention the Letters of St Paul to those fractious communities in Rome and Corinth and Ephesus, are in their entirety as purely and perfectly fictional as the novels of Ms J K Rowlings, with David, Isaiah, Hezekiah, Jesus, St Peter and St Paul, to be dismissed as having - and having had - no meaningful independent reality, to be placed on a par with figures like Harry Potter or David Copperfield.  

Nobody cries out to Harry Potter to save them on their deathbed; but Mr Larson evidently believes firmly that all those soon-to-be-martyred Jews who recited the Sh'ma Yisroel, and all those christian martyrs who called upon Jesus in their hour of mortal peril and imminent death, were...bad readers, who made the ridiculous error of supposing that  all those accounts they were brought up on, describing the saving acts of YHWH in time and space and history, were accounts of the real acts of a real and living God, rather than what they *really* were...entertaining, or soothing, or infinitely self-deceiving.. lies.

How does Mr Larson account for the presence in history - *othe*r people's history - of the Hebrews, the Jews, and then a little later, the Christians, in exactly the places, doing exactly the things, showing exactly the qualities, that one expects from a reading of their foundational books?   

As for the astonishing claim he makes at the start, about "the fictionalised life, *based on Egyptian mythology*, reified as well as purified, of Jesus Christ" - I' m sorry, but in the eyes of anyone who actually knows anything about first century Egypt and first-century Roman Judea, and anything at all about the content of the earliest Christian theological texts, Larson's claim deserves a netspeak response: ROFLMAO.  I think he's been reading way too much Joseph Campbell and Robert Graves.

(I would also commend to him and to other readers Thomas Cahill's "the Gifts of the Jews" for a resounding exposition of the awkward fact that History, as we know it in the West, depends precisely and solely on the unique and revolutionary vision of the world, of humanity, of time and divinity that is first adumbrated in that unique document, the TaNaKh - a document that on every point that matters, turns its face resolutely away from what might be called 'the world of the wheel'. ).

I seem to quote Hart a lot.  Here he is, in 'Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies', on the Christian confession - and I suspect he knows a great deal more, about the Gnostics, about the early Christian writers, about the pre-Christian thinkers of the West and the East, than Mr Larson; certainly enough that, having fully absorbed Hart's detailed account of orthodox Christian theology, I find Larson's attempt to dissolve - into the acid of Egyptian pagan myth - the obstinately particular and historic person and work of that first-century psalm-quoting Torah-reading Jew Yeshua of Nazareth, to be flatly impossible.  

Hart: "Christianity is the only major faith built around a single historical claim.  It is, however, a claim quite unlike any other ever made, as any perceptive and scrupulous historian must recognise.

"Certainly it bears no resemblance to the vague fantasies of witless enthusiasts, or to the cunning machinations of opportunistic charlatans.  

"It is the report of men and women who had suffered the devastating defeat of their beloved master's death, but who in a very short time were proclaiming an immediate experience of his living presence beyond the tomb, and who were, it seems, willing to suffer privation, imprisonment, torture and even death, rather than deny that experience.  

"And it is the report of a man who had never known Jesus before the crucifixion, and who had once persecuted Jesus' followers, but who also believed that he had experienced the risen Christ with such shattering power that he too preferred death to apostasy".

If nothing in the Gospel story ever happened at all, if it is *only* a tall tale, or the rosy illusion of self-deceivers (like the post/modern writers of fake memoirs whom Larson has such fun debunking), or an elaborate and cynical con job, then - as St Paul himself puts it bluntly - we (christians) "are of all men the most miserable".  If it didn't happen, it ceases to edify and inspire.  Its entire meaning evaporates.  

Same thing with the Jews.  If EVERYTHING in the TaNaKh is myth, fiction, nonhistorical; if there is *no* YHWH acting in time and space and history, calling people by name...then...there is NOTHING, and we are all in prison forever in the World of the Wheel, the world delimited by death and dominated by godkings, and the perpetual meaningless oscillation between Apollo and Dionysius, Order and Violence.