Friday, February 10, 2006
By now, weeks after the story of James Frey's Million Little Pieces has broken, the public is aware that the work which was awarded a coveted Oprah's Book Club selection spot is riddled with gross exaggerations and out right lies. The book which was marketed as a memoir of addiction and recovery has been shown to be more of a work of fiction sold as memoir, but in the end, does it matter? Memoirs aren't gospel after all, they are an author's rememberance of a period in his life, and in the bottom line world of publishing sales matter more than integrity. Nonfiction outsells fiction, so the question must be asked if the fake memoir is an attempt to straddle this demarcation of genre and perhaps produce a tradition which is more attractive to the shrinking readership of America. Is loving a lie enough?
James Frey is certainly not alone if you consider his work pioneering instead of immoral. Many other authors have been taken to task for what they have presented as fact. Augusten Burroughs memoirs such as Running With Scissors have been attacked as self-serving, unfair, and false. J.T. LeRoy, whose works including Sarah and The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things, was once heralded as a wunderkind of immense social and artistic importance, only to be revealed as an imaginary author whose works were in fact written not by an ex-street kid prostitute saved by therapy but by a woman. However neither of these authors have suffered for their inaccuracies or imagined personas. While Augusten Burroughs new memoir contains a disclaimer, a film version of Running With Scissors is set for wide theatrical release. The same is true of the make-believe LeRoy whose memoir The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things was made into a film by director Asia Argento. The stories remain accepted despite their questionable origins and no authors have been run out of publishing on a rail.
But why would anyone feel cheated in the first place? Why does it matter if a good story told as fact is nothing more than fable. The answer comes from the very nature of writing.
In any genre one writes in, it is understood that the author has made an unspoken contract with the reader. In a work of fiction, the first few chapters of a book serve to inform the reader as to how he or she should read the manuscript. The reader learns whether the narrator can be trusted, if the work is supposed to be accepted as hard fact or allegory, whether the laws of time and place exist or are thrown to the wind. In a work of nonfiction that feeling-out process doesn't exist as the work by definition is accepted as truth. The same is true of memoir, only with memoir there is another agreement the reader makes with the author. He or she not only agrees to accept what is written as truth, but in a small way, conceeds to sympathize. The anger many readers felt towards Frey, the sense that they had been cheated, comes not only from his violating the term that his book is fact but also from the dull-pain that their sympathy was undeserved. This is one of the reasons the negative response has been so profound. Both a televised tongue-lashing from Oprah Winfrey and litigation from readers have followed. People don't like to feel that they have been made fools of, or do they? Burroughs and LeRoy will continue to publish as there is no publicity wave moving against them. Thankfully for their sake, their books were never Oprah Book Club selections.
But is the fake memoir the new fiction, a marketable crossbreed of fiction and non-fiction which can freely take elements of both in crafting a story? Are the sales of non-fiction proof that the public is ready to make concessions? If so this genre would allow new freedom. First it would allow the reader to suspend a little belief but not all, keeping an air of control that must be submitted when reading fiction. Secondly, it would allow the author the freedom of an essayist to craft a story on the skeleton of truth while at the same time exaggerating and creating randomly for affect.
At first glance it is attractive, but the arguement for this new wave of writing falls apart on closer inspection. There are purist readers on both sides. Readers of fiction want to understand that there is a wall between the art and the artist. Readers of non-fiction don't enjoy being lied to or having their emotions toyed with. And in the end all fiction is cobbled together from real life experiences and attitudes, whether they are the authors or not, and non-fiction owes it success to the willingness of its readership to accept and empathize with what it presents as fact.
While the reading public might love the lie, they hate the liar.