Okay, on the surface, I get it. People read James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces thinking it was a memoir. Turned out it was a novel instead. Oprah beat him up, ensuring his universal pariahhood for all eternity. Nobody, and I mean nobody, cross Teh Oprah. Folks were upset. They felt betrayed.
And then the other day the duo who created JT LeRoy, Laura Albert and Savannah Knoop, went to some Chelsea shindig and people were all up in their grills. “Yo! Why don’t you apologize?” was the question du jour. And Knoop answered, “What for? Because you bought a book? Because you were moved by the words?” To which I say, duh.
James Frey is particularly interesting to me because of how much grief he took. He wrote a book. He called it a memoir. People read his book. Teh Oprah did her couch orgasm thing with it that authors everywhere crave. It sold a jerbillion copies. Folks were moved. It changed their lives. Then it turned out to be, er, exaggerated. Oh. My. Gawd.
It was a “memoir,” for cripe’s sake. Are those things ever real? Maybe it’s just me, but when I see “memoir” I think “autobiographical fiction.” Sorry, but I don’t trust many folks to speak accurately of themselves in print.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m no James Frey fan, nor trying to be an apologist. I attempted to read the book in question and found it too purple, even by my standards. But, come on, Teh Oprah, it didn’t become a different book just because it turns out James Frey is a fabulist. Also known as a writer. The words didn’t morph on the page as if Voldemort waved his wand over it just because he made some stuff up.
So it wasn’t all the “true.” But it’s still what it is. An account of a life. If you’d never found out, whatever you got from the book would have still been there, inside you, doing whatever it is books like that do to people. If you think it meant something only because you think it was “true,” then were you never moved by a novel?
Even when you’re not as cynical as I am, you gotta admit memoirs are pretty elastic things, aren’t they? Subjective and messy and prone to hyperbole and confabulation. But if they move you, they move you.
I’m not saying writers of what is ostensibly non-fiction get a free pass to make stuff up. I think there are places where complete dedication to accuracy are critical. But I think you gotta think in terms of what a piece of writing is attempting to do and at least evaluate it on those terms. Make stuff up in scientific research or journalistic reporting and I think you should burn in hell. Or, even (and I know this is extreme) have to abase yourself before Teh Oprah. Make stuff up in a memoir and you’re, well, you’re writing a memoir.
I will say this. Probably Frey should have called it a novel. Maybe it wouldn’t have been published, or maybe it would have been published anyway. I don’t know. I’m not really the target audience for those “I was an unrepentent, bottom-feeding skank” books anyway. A friend of mine read it and liked it. After all the folderol, she said, “Well, I still think it was essentially true, even if most of it didn’t really happen.” In other words, she left her pitchfork and torch in the barn. Now, to be sure, I think it was appropriate that he was outed. It was a novel, not a memoir. Like I said, I get that. I just think all the hand-wringing, all the abuse he took, was an absurd overreaction.
The Ladies of JT LeRoy got it right, I believe. “What for? Because you bought a book? Because you were moved by the words?”
Good for them.
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