Graduate Liberal Studies Program

Course Description

GLS 592: Elasticity of Truth

Instructor: Johannes Lichtman

There's a clear divide in contemporary literature between fiction and nonfiction--between made-up stories and true ones. Yet it's hard to imagine two literary forms more closely related than the novel and the memoir. Many early novelists framed their fictions as true accounts, while contemporary memoirists are told to focus on scenic structures that will make their life stories read more like novels. The only rule that governs the division between the two forms is the verifiability of the story.

Nobel Prize-winning South African author J.M. Coetzee argued that, "The word novel, when it entered the languages of Europe, had the vaguest meaning; it meant the form of writing that was formless, that had no rules, that made up its own rules as it went along." Vivian Gornick has claimed, "Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not of journalism. It is a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting or in literary journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand."

So why do we try to keep fiction and nonfiction separate, ridiculing the fictionalized autobiography and crucifying the lying memoirist? Through critical analysis of narrative nonfiction, fiction, philosophical essays, literary criticism, and film, we will explore how the events we perceive affect the art we make, and more specifically, how the labels we put on art affects our perception of the art's truth. Assessment criteria will include reading responses, a critical essay, and a creative research assignment.

Last Update: February 6, 2017