Friday, January 27, 2006

James Frey Did It, or Does a Memoir Have to be True?

Since when has memoir been true?

Memoir, as Nan Talese put it on Thursday’s Oprah, is an author’s recollection of what happened. In other words, when a person reconstructs a life, he or she has some latitude to describe it through their particular lens. When I pick up a memoir, I know I am reading a life seen through rose-colored glasses. That’s a given and I read with a certain detached skepticism.

But while there is room to revisit your past in your own way, it is entirely different to make up entire portions of it. It is one thing to write about being visited in bed at age 8 by a family friend and try and describe the sensation of being molested. That is clearly a memory, one colored by pain and grief.

It’s different to write that you spent three months in jail when you actually only spent 3 hours. That is a lie. That is not interpreting your life through your own special lens.

I doubt that James Frey is the only author who has sinned. He just was stupid enough to lie about things that can be easily checked, like the length of a jail sentence. Other popular memoirists have been accused of making things up. Augusten Burroughs is currently the defendant in a defamation suit. The family of the pseudonymous psychiatrist in the book has taken issue with Burrough’s depiction of the man.

“Six members of the Turcotte family, whose patriarch was Dr. Rodolph H. Turcotte, who died in 2000, are suing Burroughs, his agent, and publisher St. Martin's Press in Middlesex Superior Court,” the Boston Globe reported. “The suit demands a public retraction of the book and a public statement that it is fiction and not a memoir. The suit also asks that the publisher be enjoined from continued publication and distribution of the book.”

The publisher is also trying to make sure that no one looks too closely at Burrough’s work, according to the gossip columnist for the New York Post.

“According to New York Post gossip column Page Six, St. Martin’s also added disclaimers to Burroughs’s other books, including Running with Scissors and Dry. The gossip column also went to The Smoking Gun founder Bill Bastone to ask if Burroughs would be the next author to be investigated by the website.”

“Since our Frey investigation, we’ve had dozens and dozens of people writing in to suggest other authors for us to look at, and Burroughs has, far and away, been at the top of everyone's list,” Bastone told Page Six. But he said that he, and co-author Andrew Goldberg, do not want to become the “literary police.”

This may explain why St. Martin’s plans to include a disclaimer in Burrough’s new memoir, which will be released in a few months.

I think this is a positive development. As the journalists on Oprah pointed out, truth matters. It’s easy to twist and embellish facts to make a better story. It’s much harder to tell a good story just using what actually happened. You have to be a good writer. It’s a challenge, but a satisfying one.

Miss Snark said the publishing industry won’t change as a result of the James Frey/Oprah Winfrey dustup. The book is minting money, she points out. Doubleday would only change if the scandal cost the company money. Miss Snark said Frey’s editor, Nan Talese, only went on the show to ensure that Oprah doesn’t ban the entire imprint of Random House from becoming possible future Oprah book picks.

I did think the most interesting part of Thursday’s show was watching one of the most powerful women in publishing try and make nice with Oprah. It was clear who had the real power.

But I am more of an optimist. I hope this debacle prods the publishing industry to value truth more highly. It’s harder to work with the facts so they should pay a premium to those who manage to weave compelling narratives out of truth, as impoverished and dull as it can be.


Adrienne said...

I think what bothers me most about Frey is that he published lies in a story about addiction. Addicts make deceptive and selfish decisions to support their addiction, and now Frey has framed that reality in a lie.

Peter L. Winkler said...

Burroughs is the defendant, not the plaintiff.

lisa said...

I think it is one thing to stretch the truth for dramatic effect. It is another thing to be your average white bread frat boy selling yourself as some bad boy ghetto redemption story. The guy spent a few hours in jail and turned it into months. That is fiction not memoir.

I suppose I'm a bit jaded on this subject since a (now former) friend of mine wrote a memoir in which she decided that I would be bulimic. Though she knew I don't suffer from any eating disorders. Her excuse? It was just "story telling".

Well, that's all fine and good, then why not sell it as fiction?