Earlier today here on LawCulture, Jessica Silbey mused about James Frey and the blurry borderlands of fact and fiction. There’s been a lot of buzz about this recently, including a thoughtful piece by media journalist and ex-heroin addict (and, as it happens, my wonderful first cousin) Seth Mnookin. Interestingly, Seth suggests that the tendency to exaggerate one’s own criminal exploits is classic addict behavior – and that part of recovery requires making peace with the more honest but less swashbuckling story of your own past. On this analysis, Frey just might not yet be over his addiction.
Jessica suggests that one reaction to the outcry may be for publishers to create blended genres – autiobiographical fiction, or maybe memoirs with disclaimers, language to alert readers that what they're about to take in is kinda sorta true, but not actually true. And why not? Wouldn’t this be an improvement? It’s the difference between documentary film and those Hollywood products that tell us that they are “based on a true story.” Both genres get part of their punch from their connection to the ‘real,’ but we nonetheless have different expectations for the two categories. It’s not that the first is ‘authentic’ and the second is ‘fake.’ No doubt documentary films are inevitably constructed, partial, and to some extent fictional. And surely docudramas can have emotional resonance and the ring of truth that can linger with us long after the screen goes black. But that doesn’t mean there’s not a difference.
Similarly, it’s not that the memoir qua memoir is literally true – remembering is inevitably an act of invention. But we nonetheless have different expectations about the extent to which the literary creator is permitted to rework history, to change the story on purpose in significant, meaning-making ways, depending on how they frame their book, whether they sell it to us as fiction or memoir. Even in memoir, we may forgive and even expect a certain degree of creative license, but we equally expect it to be tempered by the unspoken – and inevitably contestable – line between narrative embellishment and fiction.
In Sunday's New York Times, Mary Karr, herself the author of the wonderful and wrenching memoir, The Liar’s Club, explained why she found "JT Leroy a fine little prankster and Mr. Frey a skunk." She too cared about labels: that JT Leroy sold his work technically as fiction mattered – notwithstanding that "he" created a backstory, a persona, and spent enormous energy convincing the literary world that he existed and what he wrote was his own truth. While I see her point, it seems to me unduly formalist, as if putting the proper label on the back of the book excuses all the rest. It has to me a certain “but my fingers were crossed so it doesn’t count” quality.
More generally, Karr, I think, conflated two points. She writes about how writing a memoir requires real introspection, hard psychological work. She describes how she used to believe that her father had emotionally abandoned her – but, she informs us, if she had written her story that way, it would have been untrue, for digging into the facts of her own past led her to the epiphantic realization that in fact, it was she who rejected his overtures. No doubt pushing herself to find the genuine emotional truth secreted beneath a self-serving narrative made for a far more interesting story. But even if she hadn’t done this hard detective work into her own past, and had instead written down the self-serving version of her own story – but actually believed it – she wouldn’t be pulling a James Frey. And if James Frey actually believed that he spent a few months in the clinker, if he had actually, truly convinced himself of the truth of his own fabrications, then he might be borderline delusional, but he wouldn’t be a fraud. As a literary ‘crime,’ this one requires mens rea.
Then again, maybe it’s really just all about money and success. Genre-bending, playing with categories may be all fine and well when there aren’t millions of bucks at stake. Maybe we complainers just feel sour grapes for being such chumps. Is it really James Frey’s misrepresentations that get our collective goat, or is it the fact that so many readers ‘bought’ -- both cognitively and in the literal sense of spending their dollars and cents -- his story?