Cardinal Column #9: Falsified Memoirs

(Editor’s note: My first column of 2006, this saw the start of a much preferred direction in my columns as I finally started to come across something that could pass as my own style. Drawing on the books I’d read and combining it with the seldom viewed world of literature news, I’d hit upon a solid formula to make it work. This one was written more as a reaction to real events than a personal literary reflection, though it did lead me to what I feel is a solid conclusion at the end of the column.

The column did take a little flak from my editor Dan, who wanted to see me doing more vivid creative things, but I think the real damage to the article came from his headline. The headline actually generated me my first real negative feedback – or any feedback at all – as one or two representatives of Native American groups lashed out at me claiming that they cared if it was true, and that Nasdijj was an affront to their culture.

Beyond being pleased that anyone actually read my columns at the time, I felt an urge to have this corrected. What I was trying to say with the column was not that they should be excused completely for lying about this, but that what they were doing in some ways grew out of an unfriendly print culture that tends to swallow up novels in favor of books they can shout from the pinnacle of cathedrals as signs that real life can be triumphed over.

With a few more examples of this popping up in the more recent news – David Sedaris’ novels are always a target of those who suspect fiction in truth, Misha Defonseca’s book “Misha: A Memoire of the Holocaust Years” where she said she was adopted by wolves is a lie, Margaret Seltzer wrote a falsified memoir “Love and Consequences” as Margaret B. Jones growing up on gangbanging L.A. streets,  Ishmael Beah’s best-selling “A Long Way Gone” was under fire for a butchered timeline – I think this argument still holds water and I will continue to defend my claim that a memoir sells while a novel fades. Expect a new column on this in the future.)

If it’s good, who cares if it’s true?

Originally published in The Daily Cardinal, February 1, 2006

Last year, there were a lot of articles from my peers in literary journalism, bemoaning the fact that there has yet to be something outstanding in recent fiction. The best seller lists are dominated by sharp yet formulaic detective novels from James Patterson and John Grisham, and really innovative fiction is confined to journals that don’t have the readership they deserve.

Well, now it seems like that innovative fiction and best sellers have finally come together – unfortunately, the world that combination thrives in is nonfiction.

James Frey, an author made famous by his rehab memoir “A Million Little Pieces” and the gushing praise of Oprah Winfrey, has fallen from grace thanks to investigations by the Smoking Gun Web site. According to a six-page report, Frey falsified large parts of his autobiography, exaggerating a five-hour jail visit into a three-month incarceration and reinventing his root canal to exclude painkillers.

Since the report became public Frey has been in the sniper scope of the media, accusations leveled against him faster than most authors get rejections. He was expelled from Oprah’s book club and forced to admit his lies to her housewife congregation, in an interview that made him look like he was not only a liar but illiterate. A more serious charge was leveled against Frey last week, claiming “A Million Little Pieces” plagarized work from fellow drug-addicted writer Eddie Little.

Frey is not the only author to have been recently exposed as a sham. Yinishye Nasdijj, a Navajo author who chronicled his troubled childhood, was exposed as a sympathetic (and unpronounceable) mask for Tim Barrus, an author whose writing is typically designed for the gay sadomasochistic community. Apparently, similarities between their work have been exposed – I hate to consider what the overlap is.

Author JT LeRoy also joined the ranks of literary hoaxes, the former prostitute and transgender AIDS victim actually an image concocted by artist Laura Albert. For public appearances, Albert apparently slapped a wig and sunglasses on her sister-in-law.

What’s surprising about this isn’t that everyone lied about their personal lives – you can’t be a writer unless you expand on the truth – but the fact that they have gone to such extremes to do so. Clutching tennis balls until nails crack during surgery, being pimped out by your mother at truck stops, raising adopted children with fetal alcohol syndrome – all stories so passionate and vivid they seem to be a recipe for successful fiction.

But thriving in the world of fiction isn’t easy to do, with publishers more interested in the next round of bestsellers than original prose. Frey’s story was rejected by 17 publishers when he tried to publish it as fiction, and Nasdijj likely would have seen a gap in sales if a gay porn anthology wound up on the author history. Readers aren’t interested in edgy, well-written fiction – they want to hear about real people who survive against horrible odds.

And lying does seem to profit these writers. Although Nasdijj was pulled by publishers, “A Million Little Pieces” is still No. 2 on the “USA Today” best-seller list (still as nonfiction) and according to Facebook 270 UW-Madison students call it a favorite. With the exception of Oprah, who seems more concerned about her own image’s damage than Frey’s, readers still seem to find his work fascinating – except now focus has gone from skill to scandal.

I’m personally depressed that talented writers have to fall back on tabloid tricks to get their books into circulation, and that it takes personal tragedy to get noticed in the literature world. What happened to the days when authors like Kerouac and Fitzgerald were not only real alcoholics, but used it as inspiration to create classic fiction?

In the end, I hope these books are eventually judged on how good they are, rather than if the writer was telling the truth on their book jacket. After all, what should really matter for an author is the ability to tell a good story – even if that story never really happened.

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