Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Memoir Question

The back-page piece in the current issue of Publishers Weekly, by Martin Kihn, collects bits of disclaimers from about two dozen memoirs from the last half-century or so. Reading them all, I was struck once again by wonder at the vituperative bile spewed at James Frey, whose work is no more or less fictional than the general run of that category.

Public figures often have memoirs that can be fact-checked, and they were the mainstay of this category for decades. But the surge of the last decade of "poor-me" lives are all at least mildly fictionalized; they're lives first as they are remembered and then as they're put into words -- twice separated from whatever really happened.

(Here's one test: any memoir with dialogue contains fiction, unless the author habitually tape-recorded his life.)

So what was the deal with all the anger at Frey? Was it that he "fooled" Oprah, and that can't be allowed? Or was it that he made a whole lot of money, and so jealousy on the part of fellow writers (and wanna-bes) is really at the core of the "outrage"?

Because it sure doesn't seem to have anything to do with the scale and scope of his "lies." He just did what any modern memoir-writer does -- combine events and people, dramatize the bland bits, and package it for the reality-TV generation. He just was the most successful at it, and the one where people were actually motivated to list all the discrepancies between his book and what actually happened.

1 comment:

Andrea Eames said...

I think incurring the wrath of The Great Oprah was what did it. You aren't allowed to do that, apparently. Look what happened to Franzen when he badmouthed the Oprah Book Club ...

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