I've written several times at Dreaming Up Daily on the James Frey fray over the past week or so. I'm presenting those pieces here, one after the other, beginning in book-style with the first at the top and the rest following.
A Million Easy Pieces
(originally posted January 24, 2006)
Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle Insight published two opinions concerning James Frey and his fabrications in his bestselling memoir, A Million Little Pieces: one by Martha Sherrill, a young writer whose first novel has just been published, and the other by novelist Cynthia Bass.
Sherrill had herself accepted a big publisher advance to write a memoir but found it paralyzing. She felt more comfortable turning the same material into a novel, though she found that readers were still hungry to know what in it was "real" or "true." Though the controversy over the accuracy of Frey's memoir has provided him with even more publicity, she writes that "I do think there's a way he might be helping novelists everywhere. Once they're over their shock and sense of betrayal, Frey's readers might come to realize the fictional bits were some of the best moments in his book -- that without those thrilling embellishments it would have been just another true story. Maybe next time they go to the bookstore, they'll decide to try the real thing: an honest-to-god novel. "
Novelist Cynthia Bass writes that the Frey fray should be a cautionary tale, about just how much "truth" is in any non-fiction. The vagaries of memory, the limitation of one perspective, and the exegencies of telling a good story mitigate against certainty. She points out that before recently memoirs were by famous people concerning public events, with facts that could be easily checked. But memoirs these days are personal stories by previously non-famous people, usually of lurid events--addictions, incest, etc.-- with an arc of redemption. Their factuality has to be taken on faith. "If I claim to have hit a home run at my last at-bat at Fenway, you can look it up. If I claim to have hit a home run at my last at-bat at Patrick Henry Elementary, that's impossible to confirm. "Yet the authenticity of personal memoirs is even more important to readers (hence the Frey fray.)"The unspoken bond of trust between reader and author is breached. Deliberately doing this to a reader is, for an author and a publisher, as close to a sin as you can get in the world of writing. "
Bass acknowledges that new writers are under tremendous pressure to write in the memoir form because it is potentially so much more commercial than all but a few novels (Only the latest Harry Potter novel has apparently been outselling Frey's first book.) She admits that she was asked to write a memoir instead of a novel and was tempted; and that other writers she saw commenting on the Frey fray found nothing wrong in whatever inventing he did. "The prevailing sentiment is to do whatever it takes. Which is just what Frey did. After failing to sell his book as fiction, he said it was a memoir."
She suggests "a rearrangement of attitude: less cynicism from the producers, and more from the consumers. There's nothing more dispiriting than learning what you thought was true -- what you hoped was true -- was a lie, perpetrated for money, ambition and fame. "But while both Sherrill and Bass make valid points, neither they nor Frey have addressed the most importance qualities of non-fiction or fiction.
I haven't read Frey's book but just the excerpts I saw in the now-famous Smoking Gun analysis were so plainly outrageous, melodramatic and exaggerated, that I didn't believe them on their face. I hope for the sake of his readers than in context they were made more convincing by better writing.
Clearly, the memoir's popularity has something to do with an immense hunger for certain kinds of redemption stories. That is apparently more important than any fact to these readers---the journey from sin to redemption---and especially the redemption-- forms "the truth" of the story for them. Perhaps these memoirs and their redemption stories are an outgrowth of the recovery movement, and the spreading of various new ways of approaching behavior and the big questions of life, from simplified psychology to the varieties of religious experience.
But some prominent writers and teachers, like philosopher Martha Nussbaum (Poetic Justice)and psychologist Robert Coles (The Call of Stories) have found that real literature still speaks to people on a very personal level, and helps them see themselves and the world around them in new ways.What troubles me beyond truth in labeling is the simplistic analysis of fiction as embroidered memoir. Novels are more than stuff that happened, touched up for effect, like a Photoshop portrait. There is little sense in what either of these novelists said of what a literary work can be, of its complexities and resonances. Children don't seem to have any problem dealing with the literary intentions of the Harry Potter books, so it's not like contemporary readers can't handle it.
Novels are more than "thrilling embellishments." They are stories with their own integrity, following their own necessities. Literature is something alive ; truth is in the reader.The cynicism of the writers Bass refers to is pretty troubling, especially in an age of institutionalized cynicism, as represented by current commercial capitalism and political fundamentalism. While I see nonfiction as a literary form, I believe that what Frey did was beyond the bounds of nonfiction storytelling; it was dishonest. What little I read wasn't even good pulp fiction, so the intention to deceive for profit wouldn't surprise me in a work that obviously stresses the extreme for easy effect. If so, it's mirror cynicism: a paint-by-number Best-Selling Memoir using the most lurid colors in the box.
We face complex problems in the present affecting the future, and we will face ever more complex situations requiring relatively quick decisions in that future. We need leaders and citizens who can apply the complexities learned from literature to understanding the dimensions of the future and to help them craft solutions to the problems that emerge. This is not a pipedream: it has been a feature of leaders in the West and East throughout history, though not uniformly, and its absense in current U.S. leadership is tragically clear.
It is also not a panacea, as history shows, especially if not widely shared by the citizenry. But literature is accessible to more citizens than ever before, as are opportunities to acquire the skills to augment intuitive responses. These skills are as just as important for an informed citizenry. Lacking leadership in this regard, it becomes a personal and family responsibility.