You know, I never got the whole James Frey thing. I never cared. I saw his book prominently displayed on the front table just like everybody else — both as a hardcover and a paperback — and I flipped through a few pages — the style turned me off, reminded me too much of an arrogant young wannabe trying to Reinvent Literature in the exact same ways that writers always try to Reinvent Literature — and have done it better besides — and I couldn’t help thinking that if Frey was better-read, he himself would have realized this. Maybe this was a highly unfair snap judgement on my part; I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know. (As far as addiction-and-recovery memoirs go, PERMANENT MIDNIGHT by Jerry Stahl has always been the one that turns my crank. Uh, no pun intended.)
Frey gave me a few moments of bemusement. A girlfriend of mine turned out to be an ex-girlfriend of his. She rather graciously described him as “difficult to be in a relationship with” and left it at that; she also said that “he was always working on this book. I never took it very seriously. I’m not sure anybody did. But he had been working on this manuscript for forever and you just didn’t really believe he was ever going to finish it.”
There was another bemusing moment in a Barnes & Noble when two guys asked the clerk for the book. She told them it was sold-out. They did visible double takes — the whole concept of a novel selling out seemed like such a bizarre concept to them, possibly because that meant a lot of people wanted to read it . They demanded of the clerk how and why this could be. She informed them that Frey’s book was now an Oprah pick.
Shudders of disgust. “Well, we don’t want to read it then,” said one, and he looked to his buddy. “Do we?”
Displaying a startling originality of mind, the friend said, “No.”
I also didn’t care all that much when it came out that Frey had taken giant liberties with the truth. I was more interested in the JT Leroy thing, since I had read HEART IS DECEITFUL a long time ago and been very impressed by the idea that a teenage kid might have written it. Even back then, though, a little bit of online research made it very apparent very quickly that JT wasn’t what he seemed. (The rumor going around then — at least the rumor that I picked up — was that Mary Gaitskill and Dennis Cooper were in collusion and had made him up.) When I met one of the producers of the film version of Leroy’s book a few years ago, the first thing I asked him was if Leroy was “real” and had the producer met him. The producer hemmed and hawed.
I have to say, I love the whole Leroy hoax, not the actual deception so much as the whole idea of it; I’ve been playing with the idea of a novella that would be loosely (very, very loosely) inspired by it.
The Frey thing seems much more mundane. It’s not like this entire person was invented, who then embarked on a successful literary career and befriended hip celebrities who could then further said literary career. There was just this guy who wanted to Be Published. He wrote what he probably intended as a loosely autobiographical novel — I get the definite feeling that Frey considers himself/wants to be a novelist first and foremost — but then passed it off as something slightly different in order to Be Published.
So is that so wrong? What does interest me here is this whole idea of what a ‘memoir’ is. Some would have you believe that a memoir — as a work of subjective and creative non-fiction — is itself a work of fiction, and so anybody who read the thing and believed it to be, you know, true, just because Frey said it was true, is naive about the nature of memoirs to begin with and deserved to be duped. Meanwhile, ‘sophisticated readers’ (one blogger uses this phrase several times, and I get a kick out of it) clearly recognized Frey’s nature as an unreliable narrator as early as the book’s opening paragraphs and are sophisticated enough not to see the problem. They emphasize the ‘creative’ part of ‘creative non-fiction’*. Because all writers are liars, after all.
What strikes me about memoirs and novels, however, is that they’re very different beasts, and this difference is exactly to do with their claim to reality (or not). Both forms are similar in that their aim is to tell a gripping narrative, and both use similar techniques (dialogue, scene-setting, etc.) in order to do this. But a novel is complete within itself: it is a fully formed entity, it exists independently of reality. It may be based on real life, it may draw heavily from real life, friends and family members of the writer may see themselves reflected uncomfortably in the characters, but the novel contains a textured, fully realized structure of its own; it lives and breathes and needs nothing more than itself to have full impact on the reader. The novel gets at its emotional and philosophical truths through well-crafted lies that will (hopefully) put the reader through an intense emotional experience.
The memoir, however, is dealing with a level of objective and quantifiable truth — is getting at truths through dramatic representations of those truths — heightened for dramatic effect, most certainly, but when I pick up a memoir (LUCKY by Alice Sebold, say, or Ann Patchett’s excellent TRUTH AND BEAUTY) it is with different expectations than when I pick up a novel. By virtue of being a ‘memoir’, there is a contract between author and reader that the events depicted within happened more or less as honestly as the author is capable of depicting them, and while the author may take some creative license here and there, and while authorial abilities, and levels of sanity, certainly vary, she will stop short of total fiction (or at the very least, she will set off those fictional events from the rest of the text in some clever, creative way). Because that is the specific challenge of the memoir. If you want to write fiction, write fiction — and be held to the standards of fiction. A memoir, I think, can be less realized in and of itself — as a narrative — because it has a weight and real-life reflection that the novel does not. It has the sense, running through it like an electrical current, of this really happened. Not this is what could have happened if my life had been a bit more dramatic and interesting. That is what autobiographical novels are for.
It takes skill and craft to pull off the feat of an unreliable narrator; and the literary construction of an unreliable narrator is not the same thing as just making shit up and saying it’s true. Paul Theroux plays himself as unreliable narrator in the memoir-ish MY SECRET HISTORY and MY OTHER LIFE, but despite the this-is-true, this-is-not-true game he plays with the reader, he sets both these books in a different category — ‘fiction’ — then he does his book SIR VIDIA’S SHADOW, an actual memoir of his friendship with V.S. Naipaul. And there are still people who are genuinely fooled by the playful devices William Goldman uses in THE PRINCESS BRIDE — where he tells the ‘autobiographical’ story of how he abridges a pre-existing manuscript in order to read it to his son, and the two draw closer as a result. Goldman’s structure is clever and deceptive; it’s also categorized as Fiction, which tells you everything you need to know. (Goldman didn’t even have a son.)
All writers are liars. But not all writers are frauds.
I think, in the end, Frey wrote a book that wasn’t wholly one thing or the other — didn’t fully work as a novel, wasn’t truly nonfiction enough to work as a memoir — but this failure doesn’t make a statement about the ‘gray zone’ of memoirs (“neither fact nor fiction”) so much as it does about Frey’s own limitations as a writer at that particular point in time. He could have written a memoir that acknowledged its own flights into fancy — he chose not to. He could have added some kind of “it’s possible that not everything in this book is entirely, completely true” disclaimer. He chose not to. He could have developed his craft as a novelist and kept revising and revising until he achieved a manuscript that didn’t need the prop of ‘truth’ to give it shock value, resonance and power. He chose not to. Some might say he was lazy; he took an easier way. And some might say, given how near-impossible it is to get published these days, well, hell, who could blame him? But it doesn’t make him a powerful writer, which is what I think he wants to be, even if he is, as more than one person has pointed out, “laughing all the way to the bank”.
* my definition of ‘creative non-fiction’ has always been ‘nonfiction that employs creative writing techniques’, not ‘nonfiction that creates itself out of nothing’ but whatever.