In the new spate of memoir scandals – one just broke this morning – the newspapers are full of recriminations and finger pointing. Everyone feels that everyone else should have made the one phone call to L.A. County Child Services (for instance) that would have brought Margaret Seltzer’s crudely assembled deceit tumbling down like a cheap condo in an earthquake. Normally staid editors an agents talk about the author as a crazed psychopath bent on destroying the system of trust that holds the publishing world together. But the driving force behind this fraud was not really one woman’s pathology or the dunderheaded Panglossian naivete of the publishers. That would be kind of appealing, actually … a throwback to the old days of tweed jackets with leather patches; pipe smoking editors parsing sentences and drinking whiskey out of silver flasks.
In fact the publishers are cynical operators who understand and are expert at gaming a tragic fact of the modern era: the novel is so commercially stigmatized as an art form that any story’s value is now directly related only to how much of it you can say is true. The invented has been devalued; imagination is suspect. Fiction is a lie. The ad copy reads: “It’s a true story!” Or:“Based on a true story” Even in movies you see that wan claim. “Inspired by a true story” is one of my favorites. How about: “Vaguely related to someone’s version of a true story”, or: “Sharing some names and locations with a true story.”
More to the point: willing to exploit the idea of a ‘true story’ to sell tickets.
James Frey wrote a novel about drug addiction and recovery. It was a good novel, and people bought thousands of copies and made it a hit. They did so under the false impression that the story was true. Their hunger for a true story was so great that they could ignore the obvious exaggerations (He really extracted a tooth himself without anesthetic? Come on): after all, truth is stranger than fiction. “You couldn’t make this stuff up!” is a phrase I hear all the time, when some mundane coincidence disarranges someone’s routine. But you could make it up. People make it up all the time. They’ve being making up since they were illustrating the stories with cave paintings. James Frey made it up. That’s not a bad thing.
It’s a good thing.
The bad thing is that he was pressured by his venal, mercenary publishers to call it a memoir … because they knew it would be a best-seller if was wrapped in the shiny gold foil of ‘truth’. They got caught in the lie and paid the price, with recalled books and tearful mea culpas. But it would be wrong to confuse their lie with James Frey’s. Frey took the materials of his life and shaped them into a powerful narrative. It touched people and moved people and inspired them. That’s what good fiction is supposed to do. He deserves praise, not opprobrium. If I had been the publisher I would have simply re-issued A Million Little Pieces as a novel, and proudly used it to make a case for the novel against the cheap, unearned legitimacy of the memoir.
Most true stories are boring. That’s why we read books. Life doesn’t shape itself; writers do that.
I remember an old girlfriend of mine finished reading James Dickey’s Deliverance many years ago. She said something like, “It’s so fantastic he was able to write about this stuff. Just surviving it must have been so hard.” I pointed out that the events of the book were imaginary. James Dickey had never been raped by toothless red-necks on an ill-fated white water rafting trip. He made it all up. But I couldn't convince her. In fact, she acted like I was insulting her -- and James Dickey: accusing this lovely Southern gentleman of lying.
For me that was a deal-breaker. I knew I could never marry someone like that, who found the work I cared about most to be some kind of mendacious con-game.
But she was ahead of her time. I’m sure she was cheering the egregious Oprah Winfrey as she chastised Frey for convincing her of a reality that existed only in his head. I felt like screaming at the TV: “That’s his job, you self-righteous pedestrian power-junkie! You're supposed to understand that! You have your own book club!"
Frey’s only real mistake was capitulating to the greedy corporate parasites. Maybe he's learned his lesson: I notice his next book is unashamedly marked ‘fiction’.
I suppose we should be grateful that this trend is such a recent one. Can you imagine Melville on Oprah, tearfully admitting there was no white whale and and Ahab was actually a family friend who lost a leg in a gardening accident? Or Daniel Defoe confessing he’d never been shipwrecked?
If The Great Gatsby had been published as a memoir, would Fitzgerald have been excoriated by the press when it was revealed that Jay Gatsby was a figment of his imagination? “There’s not even a town called West Egg,” Oprah might have snarled. “There’s no Daisy Buchannon in the phone book! None of these people are real!.”
But they are, Oprah. At least to me they are. Much more real than you.
And they will be around – Tom and Daisy and Ahab and Queequeg and Robinson Crusoe and his Man Friday – long after you and all your flash-in-the-pan ‘true stories’ are gone and forgotten.