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The truth about memoirs

Uproar over James Frey's bestseller 'A Million Little Pieces' unearths a literary minefield.

January 13, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | 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?

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