Just after Christmas, and just before James Frey became the most discussed writer of fiction in American letters today, I was playing a Harry Potter board game with my kids. Now, I know very little about Harry and his friends, which is my loss. But playing along at least allowed the kids to believe they’re a lot smarter than their dad, as they are destined to be. The game requires an intimate knowledge of the works of J. K. Rowling and the movies based on those works. There is, however, a more general category that tests a player’s knowledge of books or movies with only an incidental tie-in with Rowling’s creations. For example, after drawing blanks on every question - I resorted to simply shouting Hagrid! to every inquiry - I drew a card that noted that one of the actors in the Potter films also starred in what movie based on Frank McCourt’s novel?
This certainly presented a problem. Not the actual answer, of course. Is there a reader in the English-speaking world who would be stumped? Probably not. The characterization of Angela’s Ashes, however, was a little jarring. I resisted the urge to call the manufacturer to explain the difference between a memoir and a novel.
As events have unfolded in the literary world, I realize it’s just as well that I didn’t make that call. Apparently not many people care about such distinctions, and those who do are destined to be thought of as hopelessly old-fashioned and out of touch.
James Frey sold more books in the United States last year than any other author except the estimable Ms. Rowling, and in today’s literary marketplace, sales have their own morality - and reality. Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces, purported to tell the story of a tough guy with a bad attitude and a drug habit who served time in jail but in the end finds redemption. Not surprisingly, given the subject matter, Oprah Winfrey promoted the book to her acolytes, and they responded as they have been trained to do. They bought the book by the hundreds of thousands.
It turns out, as everyone now knows, that Frey made up the most dramatic parts of his story. He didn’t spend three months in prison. He didn’t get into a violent altercation with police. He was not blamed for a terrible train wreck that killed two young women. And it’s a pretty good bet that he didn’t get a root canal without anesthesia. (Honestly, didn’t that one set off a few alarms?)
His defenders, including Ms. Winfrey, have responded by saying, in essence, that the facts don’t matter, that the truth doesn’t matter. Frey told a good story, and there was redemption in the end, so what more would you want from a book?
Amazingly, according to press accounts, many of Frey’s readerspeople who really do suffer from addictions, and who see him as an inspiration turned not on the author, but on the journalists who exposed Frey’s frauds. The truth-tellers were condemned. The liar was lionized.
Ah, but what is truth and what is a lie? That is the question. Or is it? Based on the level of debate over the Frey book, many people in publishing and writing have given up on such arcane distinctions. If you work with words, are entertaining and know how to sellwell, why let facts get in the way of a good story?
Memoirs are not autobiographies, and Frey and his defenders are right when they say that memoirists are allowed a certain literary license in singing songs of themselves. Only the grouchiest curmudgeon would take exception to a memoirist’s recreation of decades-old dialogue.
Nevertheless, surely even a memoirist must be held to certain standards of truth. And the best of them strive for those standards. Yes, they aim for Truth, with a capital T. But they also work to get the small truths right, too. The journalist Dan Barry’s recent memoir, Pull Me Up, besides being a piece of genuine literature (a label nobody has pinned on Frey’s book), sparkles because of its obvious authenticity. You really can’t make up this stuff. Barry didn’t. Mary McCarthy didn’t. Frank McCourt didn’tmakers of the Harry Potter game, please take note.
But James Frey did. And it matters. And the reaction to his unmasking matters too. Ethicists, theologians and philosophers have been warning us for years about those who tell us that truth doesn’t exist, that everything is relative. We are seeing, in the course of this debate, the corrosive effects of postmodern theory.
What has not been noted in the debate, but ought to be, is the ludicrous defense Frey’s lawyers mounted when first confronted with the charge that their client actually was not an out-of-control assaulter of police and onetime jailbird. They responded by saying, in essence (a dangerous phrase), that their client really did have a criminal record of note and really was guilty of the offenses he claimed to have committed.
They’ll be teaching this one in law school pretty soon.
And now for the redemptive part of this column: Perhaps readers will learn something from this experience. Perhaps we will come to understand our addiction to memoir, and to come to terms with that beast within us that wishes to read about people claiming to be out of control and not particularly nice.
Maybe we’ll even begin to question our dependence on others to tell us what books to buy. And in the end, perhaps we will learn to think for ourselves.