Monday, January 16, 2006

James Frey and the Truth

"Why did he say it was all true, when it clearly wasn't? I would have liked the book anyway." moogs78, Oprah message boards poster, reported by the New York Times

My memoir writing so far has consisted of entries on this and another blog. Yes, The Book is in the works, but as I've noted to friends, "People have to die first."

Also, I haven't decided between a memoir and a novel. Much of my life sounds Stranger Than Fiction, and maybe that's a sign that a novel is the better format. I've been testing myself and the blogosphere to see what flies, and what doesn't.

So far, so good. I've catalogued family issues, crises and funny stories in this public space. I've talked occasionally about myself.

I've shared personal experiences with well known figures like Woodward and Bernstein and celebrities like Bob Dylan over the course of my interesting Boomer lifetime. I've related anecdotes told to me by the well known about the famous, like JFK.

In not one instance did I make anything up.

Which is not to say I didn't add emphasis. Or that I was able to recreate conversations verbatim. Who can remember word for word what was said 30 years ago? I may have gotten some dates wrong too. And I've occasionally omitted names or called someone Mr. X when a real name would be an invasion of privacy -- and not necessary to the retelling.

But I never deliberately deceive. The stories hold up well enough on their own. Of course, I'm not writing for best-selling profit here. But Dammit, it shouldn't matter.

Writing is truth from the inside out. Whether in fact or fiction, a writer's purest gifts are honesty, and respect for the reader. There are lines you just don't cross.

That's where I have a problem with James Frey. He crossed those lines. And he didn't have to -- by all accounts he had a compelling, true story to tell.

He didn't care enough to figure out what was necessary to the story and what was irrelevant window dressing. He betrayed his readers and himself. He and his editors say it doesn't matter, that because memoirs are personal accounts, they will perforce be skewed.

I don't buy it. There's a huge difference between poetic license and premeditated lie. Writing must be Truth. Not in the esoteric, navel-gazing abstract, but in the reality of the written word.

Finally, I'm not moved by what Oprah said about the Frey Fracas. I don't care what Oprah says in general, but she had no more control over James Frey's "embellishments" than Tom Cruise's couch-jumping. That should be her only comment. Her defense of Frey is so patently self-serving, it has no value whatsoever.

Frey's story had value. But he and his editors are too busy counting the money to see how very much they have devalued their readers. And in the end, Frey is not the victim. His readers are.



Blogger Ryan Welton said...

Writing must be 'Truth?' with a capital 'T?' How completely self-indulgent is that?

Memoirs have historically been wrought with fiction, from the nonsense of Hunter S. Thompson, which I loved, to the slight license used by Elie Wiesel.

Look, the intellectual right of the writer is to pen the truth as he or she sees it. The biggest problem with literature today is that we're holding creative people to the standards of how journalists are supposed to behave. The biggest problem in journalism is that we're holding journalists to a standard primarily fit for fiction writers.

There has hardly been a writer to defend James Frey, although I have and I'm a writer. I believe heavily in absolute creative freedom. I believe that while adhering to the truth is the best policy, not every Creator should necessarily be held to my value system.

This is the biggest non-story in the history of literary non-stories, and I'd suggest you learn from the master memoir writers. The best truth is absolutely full of fiction!

2:04 AM  

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