Frey in hell

Yes, we all seem to be more up in arms today about James Frey and his partially made-up memoir than we are about domestic wiretaps, freedom of information in China, and terrorists taking power in Palestine. And it makes sense to me why.

Countless hordes of people feel like they were lied to by James Frey. The reason this is more upsetting than being lied to by the President and his cronies—which happens and continues to happen on a regular basis—is that we're used to being lied to by politicians. We may be appalled by it, but we take this as expected behavior.

Writers, however, are a breed apart. Yes, their main job is to entertain us, but when they're doing their job well they are saying something true to us about what it means to be human, something that resonates in us, the readers, to our very cores. Thousands upon thousands of people felt that James Frey had told them something very resonant and true about their own lives, only now it's come out that what he said was, in many ways, made up. Of course people are upset. Of course they feel betrayed. On some level it must feel like finding out your spouse has been leading a double life.

I feel betrayed as well, but not because I read and believed A Million Little Pieces. I have not read the book. I feel betrayed as a writer on behalf of my profession. James Frey's responsibility as a writer was to tell the truth, and he failed to live up to that responsibility.

But what do I mean by "telling the truth"? Certainly writers of fiction do not "tell the truth" in the conventional sense of the phrase. They make up stories. But the stories they make up should speak to a deeper truth, saying something true about the way the world and the human soul work. The best fiction is made up from whole cloth yet woven from the fabric of reality. It is true in a way more meaningful that mere facts can be.

But a memoir is a different case. It's a work that stakes a claim to a different sort of territory. By saying "This really happened to me," the memoirist sets up a different set of rules for himself. His job is still to entertain and to illuminate the truth of the human condition, but even as he employs some of the same tools as the novelist, he has excluded himself from using a certain other subset of those tools—namely, the right to freely invent incidents and events.

Note that I say "freely." No memoir can possibly be unimpeachably factual in its every aspect. Conversations from years past can never be reconstructed accurately, for instance—unless they happen to have been recorded—and would likely make for less than compelling reading if they were. Events in the real world rarely have the dramatic arc of compelling fiction. Participants in those events may be less than thrilled to see themselves portrayed in all their factual warty glory. The memoirist deploys the novelist's tools insofar as he chooses what events to emphasize and how, in what ways to distill amalgams of old conversations to their most readable, meaningful essence, and what balance between literal reportage and obfuscating detail to employ in order to avoid embarrassing the real participants—or prodding them to legal action.

What the memoirist definitively cannot do is make up events without letting the reader know.1 To do so is to shatter the delicate surface tension between real-world facts and the amount of distortion they can bear while still rendering a more deeply truthful report of the world. Or, if not to shatter it immediately, certainly to set up conditions to make it more likely to be shattered at some point in the future. As has happened with James Frey and A Million Little Pieces.

Never has a book's title reflected the state of its pretense to truth more accurately.

For all that I feel betrayed as a writer, I can understand and even sympathize with what happened to Frey. He says he tried marketing his manuscript as a novel originally. And perhaps as a novel A Million Little Pieces could have survived as a work that speaks to a core truth. But the moment Frey decided to call the book a memoir instead, he changed the nature of relationship between the outer and inner worlds of the work. Whatever truths lay at its heart were now subject to a different set of torsions from without, were now viewed through a different prism—choose what metaphor you will. The work changed.

The work changed in a way that no doubt made it easier for him to sell to a publisher, and consequently made it easier for a publisher to sell to the public. It had to have been a very tempting and even easy choice to make—but once made it led, as lies will, to even bigger lies, and then to bigger lies still. At what point does to stop seeming possible to reverse the avalanche you've started? How much effort must it take to keep trying to outdistance it? I don't envy James Frey the last couple of years, let alone the past few weeks.

I'll come clean here. Part of what pisses me off about the whole situation is that Frey, at least at the moment, is continuing to make money off his big lie, big money. He may be taking a world of shit, but you know what? At the end of it all, he still has the wherewithal to write—a pursuit for which he obviously has vast talent—full-time. And he has the wherewithal for all the therapy and/or rehab he still so richly needs.

And still The Accidental Terrorist, over which I labored hard, and in which I went to exquisite pains to adhere to the truth as best I could, sits unsold, while I sit here in a 7th floor office in Manhattan doing a job that merely pays the bills and doesn't feed my soul.

Okay, whatever. We all have it tough, and I feel real sympathy for James Frey and the hole he's dug for himself. I live in fear of the mere thought of the accusations of lying that may be leveled at me by pissed-off Mormons when my memoir finally sees print. Hell, I have moments when I fear that I did make up the whole story of my arrest and conviction. Being caught out and called to task can't be a very pleasant experience. But that doesn't change the fact that James Frey lied and lied his way to the top of the bestseller lists, and if the worst he has to endure as a consequence is a stern tongue-lashing from Oprah, well boo fucking hoo. We should all be so well rewarded for our bad decisions.

That doesn't mean Oprah herself gets a free pass on this one. I'm sure she feels genuinely pissed off at James Frey, but I doubt very much it comes from a personal sense of betrayal. No, James Frey put her precious Book Club in jeopardy. Do you think Oprah would have chosen Elie Wiesel's Night as her latest club selection, let alone announced a high school essay contest about it, if she didn't need to distract us from the unpleasant little storm brewing over A Million Little Pieces? Not a chance. Frey taking his lumps on television yesterday was all business. Bank on it.

I'll buy Oprah's sincerity when she gets someone like George Bush on her show and lambastes him for lies that matter to something more than just our feelings.

1 It's common practice for memoirists to state clearly at the outset of the book to what degree they have taken liberty with the facts. The work that comes to mind immediately is the addiction memoir Dry, by Augusten Burroughs, which states on the copyright page: "This memoir is based on my experiences over a ten-year period. Names have been changed, characters combined, and events compressed. Certain episodes are imaginative re-creation, and those episodes are not intended to portray actual events." The caveat disappointed me when I noticed it, having already made it more than halfway through, and diminished my enjoyment of the book, but didn't prod me to pick up a pitchfork.  

Crossposted from Inhuman Swill

The Accidental Terrorist: Order Your Copy Now!

About the Book

What happens when an ambivalent young Mormon missionary is pushed to the limit in a challenge to prove his faith? Hint: the outcome is explosive. The Accidental Terrorist is the long-awaited memoir from Hugo and Nebula Award–nominated author William Shunn, based on his popular podcast. Available now from Sinister Regard!