The truth about memoirs

Times Staff Writer

It used to be so simple. There was fiction and there was nonfiction. Then, with the publication of Mary Karr’s memoir “The Liars’ Club” and Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” in the mid-1990s, nonfiction burst at the seams. So began the parsing, the long division of nonfiction into memoir, creative nonfiction and personal essay. Nonfiction, tethered to reality, bore the burden of proof. Fiction, footloose, unaccountable, all but withered away. In the age of reality TV, publishers wanted memoirs, not novels. Now, with the controversy over James Frey and his memoir of addiction and rehabilitation, “A Million Little Pieces,” the issue has exploded with the fervor of revolution, especially when it comes to what seems a whole new category, often called the recovery memoir, that publishers don’t seem to know how to vet or sell.

“The New York Times bestseller list only has four categories,” says a highly amused Tom Wolfe from his home in New York. “There ought to be a fifth category for autobiography. Or perhaps we should call it handicapped nonfiction.” Wolfe’s half-century of writing journalism, nonfiction and fiction has helped to define but also blur these categories. “This hearkens back to something George Orwell said, that autobiography is the most outrageous form of fiction.”

More than 3 1/2 million copies of “A Million Little Pieces” have been sold since the book was published in 2003, many after Oprah Winfrey chose it for her book club last fall. Yet since last Friday, when the Smoking posted “The Man Who Conned Oprah” -- alleging factual errors in Frey’s depiction of his criminal record and his role in the deaths of two teenage girls -- almost every fact in the memoir has become suspect, sparking conversation and controversy. Journalists, novelists and memoirists agree that there is no such thing as objective reality. So what do these categories -- fiction, nonfiction, memoir -- mean? Where do we draw the line between them? Is the fact, that smallest particle of literature, in danger of becoming irrelevant?


“If it were my choice,” Frey said in April 2003, “ ‘A Million Little Pieces’ would be listed as literature. It doesn’t really matter though. What matters is how many people read it and how it affects them.” He did not, however, want his book to be publicized as a “recovery memoir.” But ironically, such a label may be what saves the book in the face of accusations of inaccuracy. “Although some of the facts have been questioned,” said Winfrey in a dramatic call to TV host Larry King at the end of his televised interview with Frey on Wednesday night, “the underlying message of redemption still resonates for me.” The facts, Winfrey implied, are pretty much irrelevant. What matters is something Frey and others are calling “emotional truth.”

Bill Bastone, editor of the Smoking, disagrees. The former Village Voice reporter feels strongly that since “A Million Little Pieces” is being sold as nonfiction, Frey is “dishonest and unethical.” The Smoking did not, as Bastone tells it, set out to get Frey. “We were trying to look for a mug shot.,” Bastone says. “If we’d had any luck, we would have posted it and that would have been it,” Bastone says. According to him, examination of the book revealed an untraceable paper trail.

“I think he crafted it in a way that made it hard for people to figure out,” Bastone suggests. “There were no surnames, for example; all of the details had been washed away.” Bastone believes that if Winfrey weren’t in the mix, the book never would have sold as many copies. But he is surprised by the wagon-circle tight lipped response of the author, his agent and his publishers. “These are powerful people who are keeping their mouths zipped while Frey’s getting hammered.”

Publisher’s accountability

Perhaps the reason for this silence is that many people close to “A Million Little Pieces” seemed flummoxed by recent events. “When I read the book,” says Nan A. Talese, who published the book in hardcover at Doubleday, “it was completely nonfiction.” Talese, like many New York publishers, seems weary and wary of the whole subject. “We are not talking about weapons of mass destruction,” she says. As for allegations in the Smoking Gun’s article, Talese says, “memoir writing is not like mathematics. I am not at all dismayed. The truth is that the book has helped people enormously.... There might be some facts missing....” When asked if she thinks Frey was pressured to call the book a memoir because it would sell better, the veteran publisher draws herself up. “This is not about sales. We accepted the book,” she says, “because it was an authentic story. Who knew that it would sell? I can’t tell you what was in James’ mind, but to us, it was always nonfiction.” It’s an impassioned defense, but in some way, it sidesteps the larger question: Is a publisher accountable? Should Doubleday have checked the facts?

Such a question gets at a deep and dirty secret of the publishing industry: There is little vetting of the facts. “Publishers in general will check only for libel,” says Wolfe. “For the rest they accept the author’s version.” Pulitzer Prize finalist Tim O’Brien, author of many books, including the 1973 memoir “If I Die in a Combat Zone Box Me Up and Ship Me Home” (one of the earliest books to be labeled “creative nonfiction”) says that when his memoir was published, “I wondered if anybody would vet it, to see if I had been in the Army. But nobody ever did. I could’ve just made it up.”

“Publishers,” argues Michael Hoyt, editor of the Columbia Journalism Review, “have abandoned their role as gatekeepers. A publisher who says it doesn’t matter, well....” He trails off in disbelief.


Yet this attitude, it seems, is far from common, raising questions about just what, exactly, memoir is. “The work did not have the strength I felt was going to be needed,” Frey confessed in an essay written just after publication of “A Million Little Pieces,” “it was not as simple as I wanted it to be, it was not able to carry the emotions I needed to express to tell the story.” Finally, he writes, he gave in to a kind of expository writing: “I didn’t think or analyze or struggle or try, it just came from me, just came to the page, came from my mind and from my heart.”

“For most people in the regular reading world,” says Jayson Blair, the former New York Times reporter who was fired in 2003 for faking quotes, interviews and even expense accounts, and later wrote his own memoir, “Burning Down My Master’s House: My Life at the New York Times,” “ ‘memoir’ implies that what’s on the pages of the book will be true. But what I have found as I’ve spent more time in the publishing industry, the reality is far from that. There are a number of books, like [those] by Augusten Burroughs, which have put disclaimers in very small type that mention changed names, changed chronologies. What you realize is that even though the public will tell you they want truth in memoirs, what the publishing industry’s research tells them is that they want something they can believe is true -- yet is first an interesting story.”

Shifting lines

Of course, it’s publishers who make the labels, not authors, and these days, memoirs sell. But a new breed of book, part memoir, part nonfiction, seems to be evolving, or so the critics say. Vivian Gornick, author of a book on the subject, “The Situation and the Story,” believes that the novel has reached “a point of stasis.” Modernism has left us without story, and that, Gornick claims, “has become wearisome.” It has also paved the way for what she calls “The Age of Testament,” in which memoirists turn out compelling stories with more energy and voice than the stripped down modernist novel. “People are so much more willing to come clean,” says Lee Gutkind, editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction. “A quarter-century ago, in order to tell the truth, you’d have to make up characters and write a novel.”

“I do believe it’s becoming a hybrid form,” says Gornick of recent memoirs, citing luminary author W.G. Sebald, whose books, a mix of memory and history and observation and image, strike many critics as the wave of the future.

Samuel Freedman, professor of journalism at Columbia University, disagrees. “To me, the memoir should mean nonfiction. To say that a memoir written in the first person has a subjective point of view is perfectly all right, but that’s a million miles away from what Doubleday is saying. Frey gets to invent things that never happened and pass them off as truth. Memoir has become in publishing circles widely accepted as a synonym for ‘Make it up if you want to, we don’t care as long as it sells.’ ”

Freedman refers to the famous example of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood.” “When the book came out, people assumed that Capote had this fabulous ability to recall, could assemble themes without a note.... In time, we’ve discovered that parts were fictionalized.” This hasn’t, it hardly needs to be said, affected sales of the book. And it probably won’t hurt “A Million Little Pieces” either.

Freedman is not the only one who takes issue with the notion of playing fast and loose with the facts. (He believes that nothing short of “Saudi justice, in which you could cut off [the writer’s hands], will do.”) “Memoirs,” says Mary Karr, also offer a kind of “survival testimony” that novels cannot. Karr, who has been teaching creative nonfiction for 20 years, is angry about how writers like Frey call into question the credibility of all nonfiction writers. “This is outrageous,” she says. “I think he’s reprehensible. In fiction you make up events to support interpretation. In memoir you inherit the events and make up the interpretation.” For Karr, it’s a matter of the erosion of authority in memoir writing as well as the erosion of objective truth. “The reader understands that memoir is a corrupt form, but that doesn’t mean you can make [it] up,” she says. “This damages writers who don’t break the ethical code,” Freedman argues, “because it means that if you try to write a book of this sort, within the venerable standards of journalism and history, your book may suffer a presumption of fabrication.”

Many believe that publishers need to be more sophisticated in the way they market their books, offering full disclosure right up front.

Categories matter, says Lee Gutkind, because they help persuade people to pay for the book. Gutkind believes that publishers should explain the author’s intention more clearly to the reader. If Doubleday had done that, he says, “they might not have sold 3 million copies but their integrity would be intact.”

Just the facts

In the end, it all gets back to facts, which have become the substance of an us-and-them dynamic: Are you for them or against them? Freedman and others blame deconstructionist literary critics who claim there is no such thing as fact, creating what he calls “a weird insidious marriage of deconstructionism and marketplace value.”

“You can’t put out false things,” says Michael Hoyt. “Am I old-fashioned? You work hard for veracity. I don’t think facts are fungible.” “It’s fiction if you make stuff up,” Gutkind adds. “It’s nonfiction if you don’t. I know that fact checking is very difficult, but the writer has an obligation to the reader. The publisher also has an obligation to the reader. So does Harpo Productions [Winfrey’s company].”

For many, it boils down to a question of faith: A writer should work hard to get the facts right, even though, in the end, they may be elusive at best. “There is no objective reality,” says New Yorker writer Lawrence Weschler, “but that is no excuse for knowingly obfuscating and confabulating.”

Weschler, who refers to the Frey controversy as a “thumb suck fest,” is amazed by the regularity with which such issues continue to come up.

He feels the market is saturated with memoirs, too much of what essayist and author Scott Russell Sanders calls “loose and self-indulgent autobiographical reverie.” “The planet is 100 years from being over,” Weschler comments. “It’s just narcissism.”

Like Karr, he has taught creative nonfiction for decades. (He is currently teaching a course called “The Fiction of Nonfiction” at NYU.) “I tell my students,” he says, “ ‘I don’t want your memoirs. I want to read wine, not grape juice.’ The most interesting thing about memoir is the fallibility of memoir.” What’s important, Weschler believes, is the personal voice, “not out of megalomania, but out of modesty.” We have, he says, “a crack at getting it right. The notion of aspiring to accuracy is very important. The notion that we can achieve it is a fantasy.”

“It does get blurry,” says Tim O’Brien, echoing Weschler. “But it’s a matter of intent.... Intentionality is something that’s really critical.”

And yet, memoir has always been uncontrollable, which makes it subversive. It preserves, writes Michael Steinberg, editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, “the messier side of history.”

“So-called fictional techniques in memoir are neither lies nor embellishments,” Jocelyn Bartkevicius, professor of English at the University of Central Florida, has written in the same journal. She quotes Proust: “Reality takes shape in the memory alone.”

In conversations about “A Million Little Pieces,” many writers and editors excuse Frey, claiming he has helped so many readers. Does the label “recovery memoir,” therefore, exempt a writer from the laws of nonfiction by implying therapeutic use? These are books that motivate, inspire and make readers feel less alone: stronger, supported. “I don’t think it’s so terrible,” says Gornick, referring to Frey. “After all, he has compelled all these people to come along with him.” Karr has a different view: “I don’t think he saved anyone,” she says. “Oprah did.”

As for Frey, he claims to be finished writing about himself. His current publisher, Riverhead, recently announced that his next book, “a multi-voiced, multi-threaded story of contemporary Los Angeles,” will be published in the fall of 2007. “It is,” says publicist David Zimmer, “definitely fiction.”

The villain in the Frey story, at least in media circles, is the publishing industry. Winfrey has taken Frey back into the fold, saying she believes in him and in “A Million Little Pieces,” but blames the publishers, on whom she depends “to identify the category.”

“The categories should be more sophisticated,” agrees Lawrence Weschler. “Readers should be more educated. Truth is not absolute. Scrupulousness is a category we look for.”


Times staff writer Steven Barrie-Anthony contributed to this story.