Lies and Literary Memoirs

January 17, 2006
Category: Uncategorized

Last week, as James Frey made the transition from king of the confessional to teller of tall tales, the author of the bestselling memoir “A Million Little Pieces” came up with a flimsy defense.  

Outed by, Frey acknowledged on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that some aspects of his book were false. But, he claimed, the essence of his story about conquering drug and alcohol addiction was true. He said the contrast between reality and the version of his life as told in his book were consistent with the form known as the memoir. He called it a “new” genre. He also said it was one in which fact and fiction can meld.

In defending him, both his publisher and TV talk show host Oprah Winfrey, who featured his book on her show, tacitly supported this view. They argued, essentially, that the power of the overall reading experience was what mattered, not whether all the details were true.

Meanwhile, publications as divergent as Advertising Age and The New York Times were beating up on Frey and his falsehoods. Predictably, a class-action lawsuit was soon filed suggesting that at least some of the people who once bought his story were not now buying his justification for it. Even King, who seldom challenges his guests, looked askance at Frey’s claim.

So let’s take a closer look at the memoir.

The literary memoir is not lies packaged as truth, but truth told as a conscious act of construction. Webster’s defines the memoir for our purposes here as an autobiography, especially one that is objective and anecdotal in emphasis rather than inward and subjective, or a record of important events based on the writer’s personal observation or knowledge. None of this gives much wiggle room for falsehood. But it doesn’t entirely eliminate the possibility of contrivance.

And here’s where we get to the modern memoir, which we think is what Frey was talking about –- that is, the one that has been in fashion since at least the 1980s, when newspaper columnist Russell Baker wrote the story of his boyhood, “Growing Up.”

That’s about the time that New Journalism met its match in the way writers were approaching the personal narrative. They realized that they, too, could borrow the devices of fiction to tell their stories with thematic resonance.

Then came Mary Karr’s “The Liars’ Club,” a poet’s stunning recollection of growing up in a dysfunctional household. And, after that, Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes,” the moving story of an impoverished immigrant childhood.

By the mid-’90s, with these bellwether examples, it seemed as if no genre was hotter than the one now called the literary memoir.

But what’s important about all these examples is that, as far as we and other book critics know, they were more than essentially true. Yes, recreating dialogue from childhood required granting the author poetic license. And yes, certain events might be compressed or expanded to reflect the writer’s perception of them and their place in the story. Personal observation allows for subjectivity. But it doesn’t allow for making things up.

The fact that Frey originally peddled his book as fiction may have allowed him to believe he could take that liberty. But he was wrong. The literary memoir is not lies packaged as truth, but truth told as a conscious act of construction. 

Frey is hardly the first to violate the code: Jerzy Kosinski, for one, made himself famous for playing loose with the truth in his autobiographical novel “The Painted Bird.” While Frey contends that his blend of fact and fiction follows the tradition established by Hemingway, among others, Hemingway always called his work fiction. He drew from his life experiences but never pretended his stories were true. That’s what a novelist does. 

Frey’s publisher, Doubleday, needs to take a long look at how a book that started as a novel got packaged and published as a true story. But, more than that, the people who branded “A Million Little Pieces” as true now owe it to the book’s readers to establish how true it really was.

At the same time, fact checking needs to become a part of the job for book publishers if they want to be respected in the industry and, more important, by the people who buy their products. It seems ironic that newspapers do better at double checking the details than most book publishers, when books are intended to have an infinitely longer shelf life.

Oprah Winfrey, who called Larry King while Frey was on the air to give the author her support, took a sideswipe at publishers in the process, saying that she, like other readers, believes what the publisher tells her about a book.

Winfrey’s phone call was surely calculated to deflect criticism against her for putting Frey on her show. But no matter whether she stands behind him or not, Frey has done a disservice to himself and the book industry, and all publishers should read this as a cautionary tale.

As any journalist can attest, the devil dwells in the details.