Two Little Questions about A Million Little Pieces

I've been following this controversy over James Frey's A Million Little Pieces from a distance where it's more often out-of-sight than in. But it raises two questions for me:

(1) Notwithstanding the fact that Oprah seems to have been genuinely duped, is there really much to be surprised by here? Memoir, by its very nature, is always somewhat unreliable. It relies on memory. Admittedly, there's a big distinction to be made between forgetfulness and lying. But in our modern political and economic cultures, fact and fiction seem to blend so readily in the forms of spin and marketing. Is it really a big surprise that this trend has moved into literature?

(2) Regardless of whether or not it's surprising, is it necessarily a bad thing? Have publishers, perhaps, been constrained for too long by their tradition of categorizing books into fiction or non-fiction. Is the emergence of a genre that perhaps defies convention--let's call it unreliable memoir--really a bad thing? Is it really even new?



Trevor Jackson said...

I feel like that kid who always has his hand up first in class. Sorry to be such a comment nerd.

I think these questions are good and important, especially in light of what seems to be a massive movement away from fiction toward "creative nonfiction" in publishing (and TV and film, for that matter). We should be talking about the subjectivity of memory and truth.

I'm just not sure Frey's book is the best flashpoint for the discussion given the nature of some of his bigger "embellishments." It's unfortunate because I think this book will be the example most people think of when we talk about the necessary "fudging" in nonfiction. Even though it's been going on for a while. (Lauren Slater comes to mind.)

Either way, Galleycat provides the link today to Frey's author's note, if you're curious (in pdf).

Antoine said...

First off, I think the JT Leroy hoax is more interesting. But Oprah's not involved, so we don't hear about it as much.

There are degrees of unreliability. And there are different traditions at work here.

(A) Some people write effect-driven memoirs. These mess with the truth when it makes the story a little better. Sort of like docu-dramas on tv, but from the first person perspective. They are called non-fiction, but we know there's a little fudging going on, a la the oral storytelling tradition.

(B) Other people try to write accurate memoirs--within the limits of subjectivity, of course. They're usually messier, formally, and try to pin down some aspect of what the "lived experience" is like. A valiant goal and a difficult one. The category "nonfiction" serves these people well--it allows the material more formal leeway, under the banner of "truth is stranger than fiction." Certain documentary films are a good analogue. You can watch them--with the idea that they're capturing some form of real life--and have your mind blown, whereas the same material in a scripted program might seem...dramatically limp?

Personally, I find group (B) memoirs more interesting. But a lot of people prefer group (A) stuff. Because it uses old storytelling forms to move people. And as long as the thing is written "in the spirit of the truth"...who's it gonna hurt, right?

The argument over good storytelling versus the subtleties of lived experience in memoirs has been around a while and isn't going away anytime soon. It's an important and vibrant and fertile dynamic.

That said, Frey's memoir seems to belong to a third group: self-aggrandizing bullshit. Yawn.

segall said...

My JT Leroy question: if he doesn't exist, who was that who associate produced Gus van Sant's Elephant?

Chuck said...

As a genre I don't see the difference between "unreliable memoir" and the autobiographical novel.

At first I wondered if the Frey fallout would have been less severe had AMLP garnered a better literary reputation; from the posts I've read the writing community seems less outraged by the fudging than by the book's cliches and the author's assumed lack of talent.
As for Oprah, remember that her fortune was built on addicts, wife-beaters, and runaways, desperate people willing (and often desperate) to tell their stories. Oprah condenses her guests' often messy personal histories into neat, hour-long chats on a couch. She is a master of the couch; put Oprah and Charlie Manson on that couch and I guarantee that, after an hour, Oprah would have brought to bear on the public the redemptive qualities of Manson's sordid life.

When Oprah flogged Frey for fibbing (I've lost all alliterative control here), it was purely a business decision, I think. She about-faced on the issue the minute an advisor or publicist or that guy she lives with told her that AMLP might damage the credibility of her empire.

Grendel said...

I say there is no such thing as non-fiction, not when you;re writing about a life. As soon as those dimly remembered details have to be stuffed into the clothes of language, there's just no way it's ever going to be completely true. There will be smoothing over of stuff, there will be details selected and details omitted, there will be concocted dialog, and there may well be embellishment.

That said, as I said in a different Frey comment on a BAF post, something is definitely happening with truth now, or truthiness as Stephen Colbert puts it. The government seems to be deliberately trying to muddy the very notion of what is true, from doctoring scientific reports to using Orwellian language ("Clear Skies Initiative") -- and just two days ago in the SOTU speech, Bush was all about reducing our dependence on foreign oil. The next day the Energy Secretary said he didn't really mean that, and the NYT pointed out that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory will begin laying off researchers because of budget cuts. But notice, when it comes to lying, that all of our atention is to be focused on James Frey.

SER said...

I am so weary of this imbroglio, and yet I too must be a comment nerd.

I don't think that point (2), raised by bR, is necessarily relevant to this particular scandal. This didn't come about because the publisher was restricted to two rigid categories. Rather, some combo of the author, his agent, his editor, and the publisher chose to exploit the memoir genre, to take advantage of the expectation that the events in the book really happened. As I (and many much-smarter people) have said, I don't think anyone expects a memoirist to be writing down remembered dialogue verbatim, or to record only those atmospheric details that he or she can 100% vouch for. But this is on a much different level. Moreover, Frey traveled around for two years assuring everyone that all of this really happened, and I don't think it was a clever piece of performance art.

On Larry King the other night, they had Bill Bastone of the Smoking Gun on, as well as Michael Wolff of Vanity Fair. Michael Wolff seemed like a complete idiot to me. Anyway, his thesis was that because no one reads fiction anymore, the publisher had no choice but to market it as a memoir. In other words, people were duped for their own good.

Autobiographical novels have been around forever. And I think we all know what sorts of questions ALWAYS come up at most readings, especially Live from PL: people assume your novel is autobiographical, and they try to figure out which pieces map most closely to real events. But you're doing something else when you make yourself into a bad-ass and say it really happened.

The Daily Show had a great segment the other night in which they juxtaposed clips from Oprah's smackdown with clips of reporters interviewing Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld. They'd show a clip where Oprah comes right out and says to Frey: "you were lying," and then they'd show a clip of some talking head tossing a softball question at one of the Administration officials (like, "don't you think the economy is an unsung piece of good news?"). In Oprah's televised world, people can get taken to the woodshed, Jon Stewart pointed out, but in real life, you basically get reporters who act like teens in front of the Beatles when they interview Administration officials - and they would never, ever use the word "lie."