“I was on a train of lies and couldn't jump off. You wonder how I could lie so fluently to you. That's because at some level, I believed everything I was telling you. I believed I met him. I believed we met. I believed I knew his life better than any biographer, because I had imagined it.
“Art is not truth; art is a lie that enables us to recognize truth.
This chapter used to be named after James Frey, but along came (at pretty much the same time) JT LeRoy, then Misha Defonseca, Margaret Seltzer, Herman Rosenblat. Similar phenomena keep arriving again and again, like the next scheduled train. That million-dollar, career-exploding, trick-tease train of these so-called "misery lit" (also called "misery porn") memoirs, first praised, then shamed, each taking its turn on the double-crested roller coaster of celebrity and infamy. This just in: Oprah Winfrey duped again! It's become a national tradition, each fallout more engrossing than the book itself.
“Identity has always been a fragile phenomenon.
“I mean, I knew I'd never be the football star or the student council president and, you know, once people started saying I was the bad kid, I was like, "All right, they think I'm the bad kid. I'll show them how bad I can be."
“No matter how ambiguous you try to make a story, no matter how many ends you leave hanging, it's a package made to travel. Not everything that happened is in my storyhow could it be? Memory is selective; storytelling insists on itself. There is nothing in my story that did not happen. In its essence it is true, or a shade of true.
James Frey's freshman-year heartsickness becomes a desperado run-in with the law; getting caught with a tallboy of PBR becomes his role as head of an Ivy League cocaine cartel; his incarceration at Hazelden, brought on by his parents' concern and perhaps their own inability to discipline effectively, becomes his last chance against an addiction that is certain to consume him. The process of aggrandizement: relatively ordinary problems are overblown into larger-than-life "literature." We, too, can make a myth of our own meager circumstances.
“The JT Leroy phenomenon turned out to be a hoax, an immensely enjoyable one at that, exposing our confusion between love and art and publicity. People were made fools ofwhich is useful, because a good hoax is like a good con. Though a con liberates the mark from some of his material things, it also teaches him how easily he was tricked, how ready he was to believe certain stories. To "wizen the mark" is to send him back into the world a little less wide-eyed, a little more jaded, his vision now penetrating beyond the surface of things. To enlighten us, a good hoax or con must eventually be revealed.
“If my forgeries are hung long enough in the museum, they become real.
Oh how we Americans gnash our teeth in bitter anger when we discover that the riveting truth that also played like a Sunday matinee was actually just a Sunday matinee.
“The best illness memoirs, especially those dealing with psychiatric illnesses like depression, are written, I believe, not for the purpose of a peacock display but to offer solace. I, for one, expect that my readers will be troubled; I envision my readers as depressed, guilty, or maybe mourning a medication that failed them. I write to say, "You're not the only one." I write with the full faith that the reader I envision is hungry for my talk, because I know how hungry I am for reports from the trenches, stories that might help me map my way. We must consider the illness memoir not only as, or solely as, an Oprah bid, but also as this: a gift from me to you, a folk cure, a hand held out. I look into my heart and see a whore there, but I also see something else. The fact is, or my fact is, disease is everywhere. How anyone could write about herself or her fictional characters as not diseased is a bit beyond me. We live in a world and are creatures of a culture that is spinning out more and more medicines that correspond to more and more illnesses. Science proves me rightthe great laws of the universe, the inevitability of entropy. The illness memoir is a kindly attempt to keep company, a product of our culture's love of pathology or of our sometimes whorish selves, a story of human suffering and the attempts to make meaning within it, and finally, a reflection on this awful and absurd and somehow very funny truth, that we are all rotting, rotting, even as we write.
When Frey, LeRoy, Defonseca, Seltzer, Rosenblat, Wilkomirski, et al. wrote their books, of course they made things up. Who doesn't? Each one said sure, call it a novel, call it a memoir; who's going to care? I don't want to defend Frey per sehe's a terrible writerbut the very nearly pornographic obsession with his and similar cases reveals the degree of nervousness on the topic. The whole huge loud roar, as it returns again and again, has to do with the culture being embarrassed at how much it wants the frame of reality and, within that frame, great drama.
The JT LeRoy contretemps: we'll write some novels, have someone pretend to be him so that we have a huge backstory, which is what gives the whole thing a claim on anyone's heart. No one gives a damn anymore about the novel per se or the garret-bound artist struggling with his "truth" narrative. Contemporary narration is the account of the manufacturing of the work, not the actual work. What I'm interested in: the startling fragment, left over from the manufactured process. Not the work itself but the story of the marketed incident, the whole industry surrounding a work's buzz. We want the vertiginous details. If you think the heart is deceitful above all things, you should meet the author.
A frankly fictional account would rob the memoir/counterfeiter, his or her publishers, and the audience of the opportunity to attach a face to the angst.
What if America isn't really the sort of place where a street urchin can charm his way to the top through diligence and talent? What if instead it's the sort of place where heartwarming stories about abused children who triumphed through adversity are made up and marketed?
“"JT LeRoy" was nothing more or less than a highly developed pen name.
Margaret Seltzer wanted so badly not to be the person she was (upper-middle-class girl from the Valley) that she imagined herself all the way into strangers' lives, and cared so much about bringing attention to those lives that she phrased it as memoir, because relatively few people care about novels anymore. Misha Defonseca, author of the Holocaust "memoir" Surviving with Wolvespretty much the same thing.
Frey's narrative: frat boy in free fall arises from misanthropy and is salvaged by literary industry, which is now a subset of multimedia saturation, of which Oprah forms a higher denomination. Oprahcam tells us that we are all abused in some way, but we need arbiters to sift through the dirt for the story that can be marketed as emblematic. We begged Frey to produce self-flagellating myth, and he complied. Frey and millions behind him line up to humiliate themselves for the sole purpose of being marketed. It's so common to expect an abuse story that we have to stifle our yawns when we hear of further deceit, recrimination, backstabbing. Frey, that Puritan, witnessed what it means to be senseless while on drugs, but he can't admit he had fun. He made more sense when he was wasted.
Fragments, The Hand That Signed the Paper, The Blood Runs Like a River Through My Dreams, The Honored Society, Forbidden Love, A Million Little Pieces, Surviving with Wolves, Love and Consequences, Angel at the Fence: all in turn were used as paper tigers to once again misposition memoir as failed journalism.
Frey was crucified for a handful of inaccuracies in no way essential to the character and spirit of the book. All our sins are passed onto/unto him. Violence implies redemption: our sudden hate for Frey was due to the fact that he didn't hurt himself badly or violently enough to justify himself as self-perpetrator.
“Kaavya Viswanathan's How Opal Got Kissed, Got Wild, and Got a Life: a piece of popular fiction, written quickly for undemanding young readers, displays some "similarities" to an earlier work of popular fiction for undemanding young readers. Excuse me, but isn't the entire publishing industry built on telling the exact same stories over and over again? Since when is that news? This is teen literature; it's genre fiction. These are novels based on novels based on novels, in which every convention of character and plot has been trotted out a thousand times before. When I worked at a newspaper, we were routinely dispatched to "match" a story from the Times: to do a new version of someone else's idea. But had we "matched" any of the Times's wordseven the most banal of phrasesit could have been a firing offense. The ethics of plagiarism have turned into the narcissism of minor differences: because journalism cannot own up to its heavily derivative nature, it must enforce originality on the level of the sentence. Trial by Google.
“I don't feel any of the guilt normally attached to "plagiarism," which seems to me organically connected to creativity itself.
“(Ambitious) memoir isn't fundamentally a chronicle of experience; rather, memoir is the story of consciousness contending with experience.
“What I believe about memoir is that you just happen to be using the nuts and bolts of your own life to illustrate your vision. It isn't really me; it's a character based on myself that I made up in order to illustrate things I want to say. In other words, I think memoir is as far from real life as fiction is. I think you're obligated to use accurate details, but selection is as important a process as imagination.
Proust said that he had no imagination; what he wanted was reality, infused with something else. In Search of Lost Time begins and ends with the actual thoughts of the author; it's the manifestation of what the author must think, based on what he does in fact think. The book, by being about Marcel, a writer, is as much about the writing as it is about anything that "happens." I don't mean that everything we think is what we truly feel or that only in thought are we free of the lies and illusions of the world. I mean that you have a right, as a thinking person, to think what you think and that the closer you stick to the character of thought in your writing, the more license you have to claim that you're not making things up. Frey, for example, wrote but didn't think, I was in prison for three months. Instead, he probably thought something more like I was in prison for three months, man; I was in fucking prison for three months; give it to them; throw it down [their throats]; they'll take it; they don't know what I went through; I'm tough [goes to the mirror to make sure]," etc. That is, he made up the prison part: he fictionalized it (without first admitting to having done so).
“Memoir is a genre in need of an informed readership. It's a misunderstanding to read a memoir as though the writer owes the reader the same record of literal accuracy that is owed in newspaper reporting. Memoirs belong to the category of literature, not journalism. What the memoirist owes the reader is the ability to persuade him or her that the narrator is trying, as honestly as possible, to get to the bottom of the experience at hand. A memoir is a tale taken from lifethat is, from actual, not imagined, occurrencesrelated by a first-person narrator who is undeniably the writer. Beyond these bare requirements, it has the same responsibility as the novel or the short story: to shape a piece of experience so that it moves from a tale of private interest to one with meaning for the disinterested reader.
What I want to do is take the banality of nonfiction (the literalness of "facts," "truth," "reality"), turn that banality inside out, and thereby make nonfiction a staging area for the investigation of any claim of facts and truth, an extremely rich theater for investigating the most serious epistemological questions. The lyric essay is the literary form that gives the writer the best opportunity for rigorous investigation, because its theater is the world (the mind contemplating the world) and offers no consoling dream-world, no exit door.
“In English, the term memoir comes directly from the French for memory, mémoire, a word that is derived from the Latin for the same, memoria. And yet more deeply rooted in the word memoir is a far less confident one. Embedded in Latin's memoria is the ancient Greek mérmeros, an offshoot of the Avestic Persian mermara, itself a derivative of the Indo-European for that which we think about but cannot grasp: mermer, "to vividly wonder," "to be anxious," "to exhaustingly ponder." In this darker light of human language, the term suggests a literary form that is much less confident than today's novelistic memoir, with its effortlessly relayed experiences.
“Autobiography is ruled by chronology and is date-driven. It's a line running through time, punctuated by incident. The very thing that would seem to be the basis of autobiographical writinga life over timeis not the ground the memoir can stand on. It has to root itself in the same dilemmas and adventures as poetry and fiction. It has to make a story. In doing that, it has to disregard a lot of the life. The inevitable incompleteness of memoir may account for the fact that people can write more than one memoir. Presumably, you would write only one autobiography. You can write multiple memoirs, though, coming at your life from different angles.
“Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say. The facts of the situation don't much matter, so long as the underlying truth resonates. Memoir is neither testament nor fable nor analytic transcription. A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform the event, deliver wisdom. Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it's achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer isn't what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened. For that, the power of a writing imagination is required.
I'm interested in the ways in which stories of suffering might be used to mask other, less marketable stories of suffering.
Memoir is a construct used by publishers to niche-market a genre between fact and fiction, to counteract and assimilate with reality shows.
“Defending A Million Little Pieces, Oprah said, "Although some of the facts have been questioned, the underlying message of redemption in James Frey's memoir still resonates with me." However, a few days later, clearly influenced by her miffed audience, she apologized for leaving the impression "that the truth doesn't matter."
Stoic marketing plan: on TV, ingest a ton of shita form of abuseand transcend it by finding the product that catapults you off the couch into another lie, I mean another life (celebrity).
“Oprah has created around herself a "cult of confession" that offers only one prix-fixe menu to those who enter her world. First, the teasing crudités of the situation, sin or sorrow hinted at. The entrée is the deep confession or revelation. Next, a palate-cleansing sorbet of regret and repentance, the delicious forgiveness served by Oprah on behalf of all humanity. Fade to commercial as the sobbing witness, who has revealed harm done to or by an uncle or a neighbor, through carelessness, neglect, evil intent, or ignorance, is applauded by the audience, comforted by Oprah. Her instincts are fine, her integrity unquestioned, and she would never tell us a story that isn't true.
“I'm disappointed not that Frey is a liar but that he isn't a better one. He should have said, Everyone who writes about himself is a liar. I created a person meaner, funnier, more filled with life than I could ever be. He could have talked about the parallel between a writer's persona and the public persona that Oprah presents to the world. Instead, he showed up for his whipping.
When Frey appeared on Oprah the final time, performing hara-kiri, many of the nation's newsrooms were tuned in. Even choosing what to include in a straightforward memoir involves a substantial exercise of creative license; journalists, though, don't seem too hip to this way of thinking: bad for their business, and they have a monopoly (had a monopoly) on popular discourse.
In the aftermath of the Million Little Pieces outrage, Random House reached a tentative settlement with readers who felt defrauded by Frey. To receive a refund, hoodwinked customers had to mail in a piece of the book: for hardcover owners, it was; those with paperback copies were required to actually tear off the front cover and send it in. Also, readers had to sign a sworn statement confirming that they had bought the book with the belief it was a real memoir or, in other words, that they felt bad having accidentally read a novel.
In 2009, Oprah reversed herself again, apologizing to Frey for publicly humiliating him. Meanwhile, Frey, working with another writer, "anonymously" shopped around a young adult novel called I Am Number Four, which is about a group of nine alien teenagers on a planet called Lorien (Frey was born and raised in Cleveland, not far from Lorain, OH, a small city that is predominantly African-American and is Toni Morrison's hometown). Attacked by a hostile race from another planet, the nine aliens and their guardians evacuate to Earth, where three are killed. The protagonist, a Lorien boy named John Smith, hides in Paradise, OH, disguised as a human, trying to evade his predators and knowing he's next on their list. Frey is also working on Illumination: The Last Testament of the Holy Bible, a novel about a lapsed Orthodox Jew who suffers an accident and wakes up thinking he's the Messiah.
Capitalism implies and induces insecurity, which is constantly being exploited, of course, by all sorts of people selling things. Therapy lit, victim lit, faux-helpful talk shows, self-help books: all of these prey on our essential insecurity. The great book, thoughPessoa's The Book of Disquiet, saytakes us down into the deepest levels of human insecurity, and there we find that we all dwell. Autobiography at its very best is a serious handshake or even full embrace between the writer willing to face him/herself and the reader doing the same. At a lower level, it's a sentimental narrative about fall and forgiveness.