I’ve been reading about the continued controversy over James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces over the last few days. Some of you may remember that the book got the Oprah seal of approval when she made it part of her book club. However, inconsistencies about his story eventually surfaced, leading Oprah to bring him back on the show to question him and, eventually, stripped the book of her endorsement. (BTW, I saw that episode and she didn’t hold anything back – girl was pissed).
The saga continues as Frey’s publisher, Nan Talese of Doubleday (who it turns out, could be equivalent to Oprah in the publishing world) has repeatedly criticized Oprah’s handling of the issue, particularly on Oprah’s claims that she felt “betrayed” by Frey’s fabricated events in what was presented as a true story. As Talese put it, Frey described himself as a liar, a cheat, and an addict when he submitted his manuscript; consequently, she did not believe she was reading “the New Testament.”
All of this back-and-forth over Frey’s book raised some questions. I’d say feeling betrayed is valid; for example, I think we’d all be pretty upset if we found out that parts of The Diary of Anne Frank were made up. You purchase a book and become invested in the story, possible *because* you believe it to be true. You want facts that can be held up against historical record and proved correct, thereby verifying the author’s experience…maybe.
I have to wonder if we can realistically expect that of a memoir. Memoirs tend to be looked at a subclass of the autobiography – erroneously so, I think – typically giving an account of one’s own life during one specific period or in reference to an overarching theme, rather than a history from childhood to adulthood. The word “memoir” refers to “memory” or “mind,” to personal observations made by the author. I’m not sure solid facts are as important to a memoir as they are to an autobiography. It would be one thing if I published an autobiography stating that I grew up Minnesota and was the first Native American President of the United States – those things are blatantly untrue. But it’s quite another thing if I were to write a memoir now at age 25 and then come back to read it in 30 years – I would probably have a very different perception of what was true.
I realize that my memoir scenario differs from Frey’s situation as he knowingly altered situations in his memoir, but I’m not sure if it matters all that much with all memoirs. There seems to be an emotional truth to what Frey wrote, regardless of what he made up.