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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

January 11th, 2006 (04:21 pm)
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This is just really freaking funny. Random House is offering refunds on all copies of James Frey's A Million Little Pieces, because Frey made it up.

I have a couple of questions here.

a.) How accurate do people really expect memoirs to be? I mean, true-to-the-exact-happenings-of-a-person's-life accurate?

b.) How much do people *care* whether memoirs are accurate? Is the average Joe Schmoe who picked A Million Little Pieces up off a Barnes and Noble Paperback Favorites table really flipping out about this, or does it all begin and end with a bunch of bored journalists who've been twiddling their thumbs and playing canasta since Jayson Blair got kicked out of New York?

Maybe it's because I'm a fiction whore first and foremost, but when I'm reading a memoir I'm not that worried about whether these exact events happened exactly as they were described in the memoir. Memory is extremely subjective, and I resigned myself a long time ago to the idea that "facts", as such, are rarely the point. It's what the facts reveal about the person telling them and about the life they were lived in. I don't have terribly dissimilar standards for memoirs and for fiction, and that's why: they're both storytelling, and to tell a story well you have to tell it so that it is more than the sum of its parts.

The thing about the Frey memoir that sounds so problematic is this. I haven't read the book, but I've read summaries and excerpts and I can tell you this*: that book doesn't portray anyone's reality. It's a fiction that doesn't get to the heart of anything except the author's egomania and self-aggrandizing ambition. As such, it isn't just a bad memoir, it's a bad book, and it would be just as bad if it were published as straight fiction.

Frey tried to publish that book as fiction, and it was rejected dozens of times. Now, plenty of books get rejected dozens of times (A Wrinkle in Time, Gone with the Wind, go ahead, name your favorite), but in this case I would guess that that series of rejections stemmed from the reality that this just *wasn't* a good book. I would guess it got rejected because it didn't feel real. So he submitted it as a memoir, and then they went for it, because it's the sort of portrayal that people want to believe in. They wouldn't buy it as fiction, because, well, because it's crap. But people like the gutsy trailblazing individualist who gave every Twelve Step group on earth a swift kick in the ass and won rounds of applause for it. Many people don't like to believe that when you screw up your own life, un-screwing it up requires eating a whole lot of humble pie, and so they'd embrace the idea that someone really, really managed to do it without all that! Look! It says so! In a memoir! Which is factual! And then many other people just like reading lurid stories about bloody dentist visits sans anesthesia and people screwing in a rehab center. Regardless, the reason the book got greenlighted was that some editor figured that the story, which does not resonate as truth when acknowledged as a piece of fiction, could bypass that requirement if the publisher said at the start that it was comprised of Facts. But really, whether you're writing facts or whether you're writing fiction, you can't bypass that requirement. Try, and you wind up with a lousy book.

Basically? This whole hullabaloo, to my mind, misses the whole point. The point of a memoir is not whether every event recorded therein can be verified by a team of dedicated nonpartisan investigators. It's about whether it gives you a new bit of insight into yourself, or into the people around you, or into, well, into life itself. A memoir without that element of universality is not a good memoir, for my money. That's the kind of truth I care about. If Frey's memoir never had that, and from all accounts it did not, then this scandal could just as easily have erupted the day it was published for all the difference it makes in my mind.

*Acknowledging my own egomania here, and feel free to smack me if you disagree. You'll certainly have the upper hand in the argument if you do. But I don't think you will, as I don't know a single person who liked the book even before it was revealed that he made it all up.

Comments

Posted by: Katie (october31st)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 09:47 pm (UTC)

I don't know. I only knew the bare bones of the story, and then I read this article. I really challenge anyone to read the whole thing (it's long) and not come out feeling nothing but utter contempt for the author (albeit tinged with concern for what his mental state must be to make so much up.) He kind of made me think of Gilderoy Lockhart, in a way.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 09:50 pm (UTC)

Oh, I'm totally contemptuous of him. He wrote an asinine story, and the worldview it advocates (it sounds dangerously like a bit of propaganda to me from a lot of what I've read) is one I deplore. Despise. Something de. So, anyway, I didn't mean to indicate that I like the guy or that I'm defending the guy, because I'm totally not. I'm mostly irritated that the "scandal" only erupted when the Facts of the story were revealed to be untrue, because it sounds like the whole memoir just rang untrue from beginning to end, and in a very egomaniacal and self-centered way. (Also redundant and repetitive. And redundant.)

My point isn't that this guy should be let off the hook, but that other memoirists who twist the literal facts of their lives to give a skewed version of the underlying truth should get just as much scorn.

Posted by: A Delicate Corpse Flower (peregrin8)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 09:58 pm (UTC)

My point isn't that this guy should be let off the hook, but that other memoirists who twist the literal facts of their lives to give a skewed version of the underlying truth should get just as much scorn.

Probably... I think he deserves plenty, anyway -- partly because I think the "new of the weird" level luridness of his "true story" is what made it a best-seller and partly because I'm aghast at all the other addicts who are embracing his story (I haven't read his books, but looking at the reviews and blog entries in "drunkalogue" terms, I do NOT think it is OK to pretend that your unorthodox recovery methods got you out of crackheaded recidivism if that is simply not so).

Posted by: A Delicate Corpse Flower (peregrin8)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 09:59 pm (UTC)

And that was supposed to say "news of the weird." I was so caught up in dithering over whether to hyphenate "NOTW-level" that I failed to proof.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC)

I do NOT think it is OK to pretend that your unorthodox recovery methods got you out of crackheaded recidivism if that is simply not so.

Yep. Maybe I should have focused more on this in my entry - I got sort of caught up in my artsy-bluesky "what is the nature of reality?" blithering that I forgot to mention that that is absolutely reprehensible. I have too damn many relatives whose lives have been ruined first by drugs and alcohol and next by the idea that they're tough guys who can fix it themselves so fuck off all you twelve steppers.

Posted by: Katie (october31st)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:02 pm (UTC)

I see your point, and it's quite valid. The best explanation I can give is kind of lame, but hear me out: I think why people might be more upset is because the reaction might be, "but he lied about IMPORTANT things." (Told you it was lame.) He took a tragedy that happened in his hometown (some high school kids hit by a train and killed/injured) and wrote himself into it, saying he was one girl's sweetheart, he had dropped her off to meet that guy that was driving the car, and erasing another girl out of it entirely. OH NOES, if only he hadn't let her go! In reality, her parents say they had maybe met him once, and he had not been involved at all that night.

Some kids in my high school were killed in a car crash too. Maybe if I write a memoir, I might play up a few conversation I had once had with the girl, who was in a photography class with me, spinning them into a stronger friendship than what actually existed. That's one thing, and I'm sure that that happens in most memoirs. But I'm not going to write that the boy was secretly in love with me and I had tried to stop him from going out with the girl that day, and if only I had, everything might be different. That's using a tragedy for my own purposes. That's wrong.

I guess it's not the manipulation of reality that is so bothersome, but the degree to which it is done, and for what reasons perhaps.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC)

bingo!

That, and he's basically the scapegoat for America's revulsion with its own complicity in his success. Because, America is full of fucking stupid sheep who bought this book and loved it.

Posted by: Katie (october31st)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:14 pm (UTC)

Well said. There's no indignation like that of people who've found out they've been thoroughly had.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:18 pm (UTC)

I'd feel better if America looked at themselves and said, "Holy shit, we supported this guy?" and, "Holy crap, does this mean we actually love tales of degradation and irredeemable assholes better?", but somehow I get the feeling since they're all screaming, "Fake! Fake!", that they really haven't, and aren't about to. Shame, really.

Posted by: Katie (october31st)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:26 pm (UTC)
Again, well-said.

In other words, BURN THE WITCH! BURN THE WITCH!

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:28 pm (UTC)
Re: Again, well-said.

"This isn't my past, it's a false one!"

Posted by: Katie (october31st)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:34 pm (UTC)
Re: Again, well-said.

*dies of laughter*

I'm totally metaquoting that. Gimme a minute.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:45 pm (UTC)
Re: Again, well-said.

My first metaquote! ::dies::

Posted by: Katie (october31st)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:47 pm (UTC)
Re: Again, well-said.

Seriously? That surprises me. Well, here you go! :)

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:49 pm (UTC)
Re: Again, well-said.

Mwah! Wonderful.

I keep trying to think of ways to put the rest of that scene into this scenario, but keep coming up short. Although the idea of James Frey lying about killing a ton of people when it was just a little fluffy rabbit that did it really does make me giggle.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:06 pm (UTC)

That's true - I hadn't heard that. Most of what I had read about consisted of him making stuff up from whole cloth. The idea that he would take a real-life tragedy, a tragedy which hurt a number of real people horribly, and hijack their pain for his own purposes is just beyond disgusting.

Posted by: A Delicate Corpse Flower (peregrin8)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:08 pm (UTC)

yeah, that was, like, stalkeriffically creepy.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 09:56 pm (UTC)

Ugh, I hate to think how he could have fucked up those other addicts he counseled.

The funniest thing in the world though will be when he publishes his memoir of why he wrote the fake memoir, and what the experience of writing the fake memoir and the onslaught of publicity for the fake memoir were like. I guarantee you he will. And that it will be a bestseller. Maybe that's why the "off the record" thing. He wanted them to catch him out so he could start working on a new memoir about the whole thing.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC)

If it's any consolation, I worked in a bookstore when the Glass novel was published (there's a supreme bit of irony: he made up crap for the papers and then told his life story in a novel), and it sold one single solitary copy from our store.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:06 pm (UTC)

New Republic. And the film about it is actually quite good.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:10 pm (UTC)

Yeah, that was one place where his being a whiny bitch was not out of place :)

Posted by: Gilathief (gilathief)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:07 pm (UTC)

This should so</s> be meta-quoted:

b.) How much do people *care* whether memoirs are accurate? Is the average Joe Schmo who picked A Million Little Pieces up off a Barnes and Noble Paperback Favorites table really flipping out about this, or does it all begin and end with a bunch of bored journalists who've been twiddling their thumbs and playing canasta since Jayson Blair got kicked out of New York?

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 11th, 2006 10:09 pm (UTC)

I'm not sure if that's an "is it okay with you if I metaquote?" or a "somebody should metaquote this", but if it's the latter I don't mind. I also don't mind if you don't metaquote it, so no big deal. :)

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: Alexa (landofshadows82)
Posted at: January 12th, 2006 12:25 am (UTC)

Perhaps there should be a disclaimer before it like the one in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy:

Based on a a true story.
Only names, locations, and events have been changed.

Posted by: Pirate Jenny (deliriums_fish)
Posted at: January 12th, 2006 12:58 am (UTC)
um...

I agree. I actually just started reading it when the news came out, and I pretty much went "Hm. Oh." And that was that. It just changes where you shelve the book.
Still, I might take advantage of that refund, I'm strapped for cash.

Posted by: don draper's gin-soaked conscience (theholyinnocent)
Posted at: January 12th, 2006 05:04 pm (UTC)
naked lunch

A very, very crucial development on the Frey situation.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: January 12th, 2006 05:22 pm (UTC)

That's kind of the most awesome thing ever.

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