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How true? A ratings code for memoirs

MODEST PROPOSAL

January 15, 2006|Roy Peter Clark | Roy Peter Clark teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg, Fla. He is the author of "Writing Tools," to be published later this year by Little, Brown.

FOLKS SAY there's no such thing as being a little bit pregnant, but it appears that memoirs can be more than a little bit fictional.

James Frey admits as much in his defense of "A Million Little Pieces," an Oprah-endorsed description of his life as a criminal, alcoholic and drug addict.

An investigation by "The Smoking Gun" website has shot holes in Frey's account, exposing him to be more Fat Lie than Tough Guy. Frey attributes the distance between his dramatic, bestselling narrative and his verifiable life to the failures of an addled memory and, more to the point, to the slippery standards of memoir.

During a phone call to Larry King, Oprah stood by her man but challenged book editors to be clearer about what they deliver to her under the rubric of "memoir." It's true that all memoirs exist on a spectrum that stretches from accurate journalism to fact-laced fantasy.

Oprah is on the right track, so I offer this solution to America's memoir dilemma, one I've adapted from the entertainment industry. We need labels.

Each memoir should be marked with a ratings code that describes just how well the story adheres to what most of us would recognize as practical truth: Either you own a dog or you don't. So I offer this ratings code as a first step.

AM -- All Made Up

Nothing in this book is true to life. It was written as a novel, but the author couldn't sell it so he turned his frog into a memoir.

OW -- Out of Whack (or Oprah-Worthy)

Some of the events in this book -- but we're not telling you which ones -- have been altered to make the author's life seem more troubled and thus more marketable.

BS -- Beyond Common Sense

Consider this book true -- but only if you believe in a "higher truth." So if the author has altered the breed of his dog from toy poodle to rat terrier, it's only to signify the higher ratty-ness of his dissolute life.

SM (not S&M) -- Selective

Memory

This book confirms that all memory is fictional, and that these memories are more fictional than others. The author describes events that actually happened, but also some that could have happened if he was another person, and some that should have happened, and still might -- someday.

TG -- Too Good to Be True

Everything in this book is accurate and true to life. The author, though, is so outrageous that many scenes will not be believed. Rest assured, the author, though gay, did once French kiss his great grandmother.

Finally, you should know that I came up with this idea while spending a night in a Hilton ... I mean when I was dating Paris Hilton ... uh, in Paris -- or is memory playing a trick on me again?

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