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January 16, 2006


Susan Silbey

It matters whether Frey's account was truth or fiction because in believing it was true, readers were misled about the way the world works, let us say the way reality is constructed. The readers seeking a true account desire not only a moral accounting - a lesson about good and evil and the possibilities of redemption, they are also looking for evidence that overcoming evil and doing good is probable, not merely possible. The observer who seeks reality in the text is often seeking instruction on "how to" as much as "why" and "what for."


"It matters whether Frey's account was truth or fiction because in believing it was true, readers were misled about the way the world works, let us say the way reality is constructed."

I think this accurately captures the reason for most readers' outrage at the Frey affair, but it doesn't ring true for me. Why is a denotatively true story necessarily more effective at edifying readers than one that's fictional (or, one might say, that possesses a different, literary sort of truth)?

If Frey's account misdescribes the world and that misleads his readership, there's a problem. But for the most part, his fictionalized incidents appear to have been true to life, and if readers relate to those stories and are made better off for it, I'm hard-pressed to see the harm. To take another example, the 60s drug-scare memoir "Go Ask Alice" was eventually shown to be not strictly accurate, but more a composite of various young women's stories. Does that mean it shouldn't be assigned to keep kids off drugs (assuming it was effective at achieving that end)? I'm not sure.

In the end, I think the later post on this site got it right--people just don't like to feel duped. Someone who reads and relates to a memoir comes to trust the author in a personal way (despite not knowing him), and the revelation that the author's account is fictionalized is not dissimilar to being betrayed by a friend.


Dave seems to have hit the nail on the head as far as feelings on the issue - who likes to find out they have been taken in by an illusion? I also agree with his assessment of the lack of problem that the fictionalization represents - after all, this is really a marketing problem. If the book had been written by "anonymous" perhaps readers would have better tolerated some latitude in the "facts"? I haven't read it so am not qualified to speculate further.
Jessica, I'm an old NNHS'er from your class of '88. Drop a line if you get a chance (and if you can see the e-mail address) or on my blog, in return. Your essays are much better thought out than mine, by the way. Bravo.

Jessica Silbey

I agree with both Dave and Heather (and Jennifer in her later post) that the dominant feeling is one of being duped, and this explains much of the hub-hub. I wonder, however, about Dave's further comment which is that the reason we feel that way is because we feel as if we have been betrayed by a friend. Where does that close, emotional feeling we get from reading a memoir -- which is different from the close, emotional feeling we get from reading a fictionalized novel -- come from? Does it come from the implicit promise that the writer is exposing the truth of himself and we should be honored to be let in, as a friend is let in on a secret? And why should that be the case when he is letting in the whole world on his private life? No honor without selectivity, right? Do we feel similarly "honored" when we watch a reality television show? Or a television tell-all interview with a well-known politician or movie actor? Feeling duped may be the operative emotion, but I wonder if we feel duped for the wrong reasons. Or if we are wrong to feel duped. Jim Frey isn't our friend and he doesn't necessarily aim to be. So if he is creating trust, it is coming from somewhere else. I wonder, is this a question of rhetoric rather than categories?

Eh Nonymous

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