Acceptable Lies and the Ghost of James Frey, (or, Against the Lit of Fact III)

categories: Cocktail Hour


I am new to the blogging world and so as a newcomer (note to all writers: avoid the word “newbie” at all costs), I am bound to make mistakes.  I was having a beer with a former student and friend the other day when he informed me that my e-lingo was slightly messed up, that I had in fact referred to the “blog” I wrote a few days before, while what I had meant was the “post.”  My apologies.  It won’t happen again.  

Anyway, one thing I am learning about blogs, that is posts, is that they should be relatively short.  Which makes sense.  Whenever I write long pieces these days, I do so apologetically, assuming, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson (or was it Churchill?  Or both?) that the piece will defend itself against being read by its very length.   Working on that assumption, I figure no one will actually read the full essay, “Against a Literature Fact,” which I posted the other day.   So I’m going to excerpt a little bit of it here, as it seems relevant to the conversation Bill and I (and some of you) are having.   To do so I’ll have to bring up the name James Frey, but after this I promise never to do so again.     

The image of Frey cowering on the couch after being spanked by Oprah is one of the most indelible in modern literary memory.  The only thing better would have been if there had been stocks and the audience had been allowed to pelt the man with tomatoes.Why was that moment such a great release for such a great many people?  Long before anyone had ever heard the name Frey, there were those who equated the rise of memoir with the end of civilization.  In the heat of the Freyian moment we heard a scolding chorus issue forth from dozens of columnists, commentators, and of course from the great benefactor herself.  “I believe the truth matters!” thundered Oprah, like the Queen of Hearts, as the crowd cheered.  Something must change!  Facts must be checked!  Off with his head!  Of course we all agree that Frey was wrong to have lied, to have made things up whole cloth.  But in the moral oversimplification of the moment, everyone seemed to have forgotten that our culture has a long proud tradition of fictional nonfiction.  (I still haven’t finished the David Shields book—put it aside to re-read Stegner’s great biography of Bernanrd DeVoto in fact—but one place where I heartily agree Sheilds is his sense that Frey, rather than cowering, had a real opportunity to stand up and say some smart things about fiction and nonfiction).    Ignoring this tradition, not to mention ignoring the fact that most of us understand that memoir is not always literal truth, we all found ourselves outraged, outraged, that we had been lied to.  The collateral damage became obvious when Oprah’s next chosen book, Elie Wiesel’s Night, came under attack for factual details, most prominently the questioning of the age that the narrator was when he was carted off to Auschwitz.  That there is a world of difference between this inaccuracy and those of Frey, that to compare the two books would only be reasonable if Wiesel had invented the fact he was in a concentration camp at all, didn’t matter.  What mattered was the emerging belief that memoir should be held up to the rigorous journalistic standards of factual accuracy.     

            I humbly defer.  Oprah may tell us the truth matters, but the truth is it’s not that simple.  Every seasoned reader, even the legion of judgmental columnists like Maureen Dowd who called for Frey’s head, must know that the memoristic and essayistic contract with the reader is quite different than the journalistic one.  Anyone who sits down to read a detailed account of a conversation a memoirist had when he was seven with his mother over the death of a goldfish, should know that what is on the page is made up, or as we say in the trade, re-created.  Astute readers also know that within the world of memoir there are lies and then there are acceptable lies.  As Bill says in Writing Life Stories: “Approximating the words from a lecture attended long ago at your modest college is something quite different from saying you studied under Robert Lowell at Oxford.”  Another historically “acceptable” lie is time compression.  I recently wrote a book of nonfiction, a long essay really, about the great nature writer John Hay, and I taped many of our conversations.  But when it came time to novelistically frame my time with this man, I decided it was better to have our meetings take place over the course of a single year, rather than the sloppier two years and change that it actually took.  My justification for this was fairly highbrow since this was a nature book and for a model I could point to Thoreau’s Walden, which had also been squashed down from multiple years into one.   Not a lie, true, but maybe enough to earn Thoreau a scolding from Oprah.  

         Sins of time and dialogue may seem relatively minor.  Nature writers commonly move scenes around to fit the page and they have a relatively free hand in this as squirrels are less likely to complain or sue than cousins and friends.  But then we get to human beings, who inside pages become something called characters, and this is where it gets messier.  Omission is one of the lesser crimes of character: I have an essayist friend who wrote a beautiful piece about experiencing a moment of euphoria after a solo climb up a mountain.  The only problem was that the companion the writer had actually been hiking with read the essay and grumbled about being edited out.  Equally common is creating something called “composite characters” when several real life people are smushed into one.  This is usually motivated by a desire for clarity and artistic neatness among minor characters: say you are writing about a time when you were in the hospital and you conflate three night nurses into one.  (I think Bill’s take on this in his last post was fascinating, but I have also known readers who get pretty upset about finding out about amalgamated characters.  When I first started to teach in North Carolina, some students of mine once read the work of a memoirist who later, when he came to speak to us, admitted that a minor character they had all really loved had actually been built in this way, from the parts of several characters.  Many said they felt betrayed.) 

Of course the simplest way for an author to use these techniques without upsetting readers is by fessing up.  This, after all, is the Montaignian heritage.  A major complaint about Frey’s book is that nowhere did he say or suggest that it wasn’t all true, and he rode this “true story” horse hard until it bucked him.  The paradox within the genre is that while we may forgive a few misplaced facts, we never forgive an overall lack of honesty.  In his note to readers, Montaigne said that, had custom allowed, he would have stood before us naked.  If we like the form we like that (even if we don’t really want to see a naked middle-aged Frenchmen).  As it turns out, one of the surest and most obvious ways to establish trust is by telling the reader right at the start that what follows may not all be exactly true, and within the genre disclaimers have risen to a kind of minor art form.  For instance, at the beginning of This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff writes: “I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology.  Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome.  I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.  But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.” 

This last point is a vital one.  Intention may be hard to discern and somewhat vague, but intention matters.  One of the reasons for the Frey backlash is the sense of many readers that they were manipulated and betrayed, and that Frey’s motivations were not honorable ones.  In the best essays or memoirs we feel just the opposite: that the writer is honestly wrestling with ideas and then trying to present them to us as nakedly and frankly (and artistically) as possible.  A good memoir becomes great when we sense this honest effort to make sense of life’s facts.  Can readers be misled?  Lied to?  Can candor be used as a false trick, the way really good liars use it in life?  Certainly.  But we also hope we can ferret out intention, and, more importantly, that we know when something is art.

If, in the aftermath of the Frey scandal, nonfiction writers are held closer to journalistic standards it will be for the most part a very good thing.  But it would be a shame if this were taken too far.  The fact that the rules within memoir are not as rigid is one of the most exciting things about the genre.   Should our stories be as factually accurate as memoirists and essayists can make them?  Of course.  Just because a thing is emotionally true doesn’t mean it can’t be factually true, too.  But at the same time a memoirist who says their sister had blonde hair when it was light brown shouldn’t be held to the same standards as Stephen Glass.  It is the nature of memoir and essay that memory is telling the story and these forms will never be as clean as journalism.  In the best literary nonfiction the true rules that need to be followed are artistic ones.  Those rules are developed in each individual book by each individual artist, and they should be judged that way, individually, not in a great hue and cry of moralistic oversimplification.  Yes, it is wise for writers of memoir to hew as closely as they can to the facts.  But my worry is that we will, as usual, overreact and learn too literal of a lesson.  That in rushing to rein things in we will choke off what is creative and alive in the form.

Which leads to a larger point.  So much of the disdain for memoir, and for other more personal forms of writing, has been disguised as something it isn’t.  What is presented as a moral criticism is most often really a matter of taste.  I have a sweet tooth for the personal, and I admit this, but it does not make me a bad person.  “I prefer the swamp to the desert,” said my old college professor, Walter Jackson Bate, paraphrasing, I believe, Coleridge.  Me, too.  But that doesn’t make the desert evil.  There are those who like cool jazz and those who like it hot.  For the most part cool jazz rules the modern nonfiction market and, with the one swampy exception of memoir, the majority of that cool nonfiction is polite, non-intrusive, journalistic and, of course, about something.

  1. M.M. Wittle writes:

    I’ve taken some heat because I wrote a piece about my reaction to someone else’s action. Some say I didn’t have the right to tell another’s story in connection with my own. I think this is one of the major debates in Creative Nonfiction because where is the line between my story and our story? How much of our story am I allowed to tell?
    For the sake of protecting the person’s identity, I did change basic facts (like names and places). But does that mean I just went against the Creative Nonfiction Code? Just like the above comment, I was a bit of a coward. So, do I get hanged for that?

    • Dave writes:

      I don’t think they have hung anyone yet, though I’m not entirely sure. Public humiliation–Oprah, the stocks, etc…–is the generally accepted punishment.

      But the “rules,” which aren’t rules, are so muddy that who is to say which is cowardly, not using the real names or using them?

      I had a talk with a writer/editor I respect the other day and we basically concluded that anything is possible as long as you are up front with the reader. For instance, I’ve always pointed to Walden as an example of time compression, since HDT takes two years and change and makes it a single year. But when I was re-reading the book for a class I’m going to teach I noticed that Thoreau tells the reader this up front, “Hey, I was really there for a couple years but I’m going to make it one.” You can do this with almost anything.

  2. T writes:

    I believe that using the term Creative Nonfiction should suffice. Readers must know that this form is a creative one, an artisitc endeaver – that is, it is not a report. The same for a memoir – it is memory, personal perception – both are fallible and flexible which should be obvious. If you are a good writer, with good intentions, the cloudiness of some facts do not poison the whole stew.
    I write mostly personal humor essays and, as someone who is new to writing creatively for an audience, I have often heard, the whiney battle cry, “Hey, I didn’t say it like that.” or “It didn’t happen that way.” To which my answer is always, “What you actually said/did wasn’t really that funny – had to punch it up. So sorry – it is creative nonfiction you know.” The shut up is usually instantaneous….my genre should should be enough of a disclaimer for any reasonable reader.

  3. John Jack writes:

    I have an irrational fear I’ll one day have a successful firction writing career and the next day be set upon by critics indicting me for cowardly representing nonfiction as fiction.