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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

January 11th, 2006 (04:21 pm)

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.


(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 :)

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