I’m here at the Launchpad Workshop in Laramie, Wyoming, getting my brain stuffed full of proper astronomy (and boy did I need it—I am ashamed to admit that I honestly thought the moon cycle was caused by the earth’s shadow). I’m sure this experience will give me plenty to post about soon (at the very least, I need to vent about how terribly, god-awfully bad Armageddon is), but for now I’m going back to two weekends ago, when I attended the truly awesome Readercon convention in Massachusetts.
First, Readercon is a convention that probably has the highest number of professional and semi-pro writers attend. I couldn’t believe the people I saw just walking around the hallways. I met Nina Kiriki Hoffman, which made me particularly excited, since I absolutely adored A Fistful of Sky. Even better, I learned that she’s now writing a sequel focusing on the main character of that book’s sister. I honestly can’t wait. I also played mafia, which is a game that brings out every ounce of deviousness and cunning in me. Which is to say, I’m really not very good and I have a shitty poker face. On the other hand, I loved it so much that I’m now attempting to write a short story about it.
BUT…onto the point of this post. One of the most interesting panels I attended was called “James Frey Recapitulates Santa Claus.” Now, I have a particular interest in the case of James Frey because I happened to be working on the lovely book club QPB when the Smoking Gun revealed his deceptions and his money-sucking house of cards came crashing down. We at QPB had just made My Friend Leonard, the sequel to A Million Little Pieces, a Main Selection in the upcoming catalog and had paid the publisher A Great Deal of Money for this privilege. We thought that it was a sure thing, given how much play James Frey was getting all over the internet and on television because of Oprah’s endorsement. I don’t know if my reader(s) remember this, but James Frey was pretty much the king of the literary world for a few months there. Everyone was reading his book on the subway, and as far as I could tell the reviewers really loved him and his surprisingly cinematic, tough-guy true story of recovery from addiction. I later discovered that a few savvy reviewers had been calling him a fraud from the beginning, not based on any investigative reporting, but a simple knowledge of the realities of addiction and rehab. Of course, no one paid attention to them. In a strange way—and this is important to the theme of the panel—people wanted to believe the unbelievable stories that James Frey told. They had a disincentive to acknowledge the clear hyperbole in the book, because the alternative was boring and depressing.
Some people, like Oprah, I think should have known better. They had the life experience from which to question the truth of the book. On the other hand, when I read A Million Little Pieces about a week before the Smoking Gun story broke, I distinctly remember thinking: “Wow, it’s so amazing that this guy had such a cinematic life…right down to the structure of the story of his stay in rehab! My life doesn’t have a structure like that at all.” You would think that this would have tipped me off to the possibility that such a structure might have been imposed upon his life instead of coincidentally appearing in it, but I think I have a fairly valid excuse: I didn’t know any better. The closet thing to thing to addiction that I’ve experienced is Veronica Mars. I’ve never been close enough to an addict (or recovering addict) to have any clear sense of their personality traits or the realities of programs like Hazelden. This doesn’t excuse me entirely, of course. I think I’m no less susceptible than anyone else to the excitement of really wanting to believe that people’s lives really can be like movies…or novels. After all, isn’t that belief a large part of the underpinning of verisimilitude in a novelist’s craft?
So, a few things to get out of the way about A Million Little Pieces (I never did read the sequel):
- The writing is truly, unbelievably terrible.
- I didn’t notice this until the hoax was revealed.
This might indicate that I (and reviewers at the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, the San Francisco Chronicle) aren’t particularly discerning readers. And maybe that’s true, but as some of the panelists were discussing at Readercon, I think it points to a different issue: the vastly different perception of memoirs, autobiographical novels, and (more straightforwardly fictional) novels. In novels where you either don’t know the author or they only obliquely deal with the author’s life (say, Star Trek novels), the interpretation and judgment lies solely upon the text (and maybe the external social and political issues it deals with). In autobiographical novels, the text is still primary, but certain flaws might be forgiven in the interests of telling an interesting story that has the even greater benefit of being somehow “true.” Think of The Devil Wears Prada. Memoirs, however, are a very strange kettle of fish. Because they have the strongest claim to truth of the three types of stories above, they also have the greatest claim to forgiveness of their authorial sins. After all, this really happened to the author. So he seems to have a strange aversion to commas and quotation marks. So his ultra-male style staccato speech puts me in mind of Bruce Willis starring in Rehab: The Movie. So the characters in the book rather conveniently fall into capital letter roles: the Wise Black Musician, the Mobster with a Heart of Gold ™, the Beautiful but Messed-Up Girl with Tortured Past, the Jaded AA Sponsor. When I was reading that book, I was so floored by descriptions of him getting several root canals without novocain (and getting strapped to the dentist’s chair with industrial truck belts, no less) that I didn’t pay much attention.
I (and probably most readers) am inclined to forgive the excesses of someone who is telling their own harrowing life story. On the panel, someone asked how we might view Night differently if it was revealed that Elie Wiesel made it to England before the Holocaust and was never actually in a concentration camp. Something tells me that the text itself would fare a little better than A Million Little Pieces, but I have no doubt that there are certain aspects of that memoir as well that are forgiven (and maybe even celebrated) because we take it to be true. The very act of labeling a work “memoir” instead of “novel” automatically creates a cushion in most reader’s minds that protects it from the criticism we might ordinarily level at it. Overwrought language? Well, what better excuse than your own overwrought life?
Even so, I very much doubt that A Million Little Pieces would ever have become a classic memoir on the scale of Night. In a clear contrast, I also read A Woman in Berlin and personally recommended it in QPB earlier that year. That book is an astonishingly beautiful, spare memoir written by an anonymous female reporter who endures the mass rapes and general brutality that followed the fall of Berlin to the Russians in WWII. It was clear to me, even then, that this was a book with no excesses to forgive. It is a beautiful literary work. And, in fact, when I heard rumors (that, for the record, don’t give me serious pause as to its authenticity) that parts of the book might have been fabricated or written years after the occupation, I never revalued it.
When the Frey story broke, on the other hand, it was as though I’d been beaned on the head on the road to Damascus. With everything in that book that I had taken on faith revealed as a lie, the entire retroactive reading experience changed. I realized that his bizarre machismo and punctuation antics weren’t the forgivable eccentricities of an essentially true memoir, but the fabrications of an untalented poseur. It’s no surprise to me that this story was repeatedly rejected when presented as a novel. The falsehoods in it are (ironically) all too obvious when they’re presented as fiction. In fiction, after all, verisimilitude is important. In fact, the book operates on even more of a dangerous and duplicitous level than a mere fabrication of one’s life story. Because, of course, Frey didn’t choose to write about some specific, one-time event that has little direct effect on people’s lives now (e.g. A Woman in Berlin or Night). He chose to write a rehab memoir. This subgenre is peculiar because it is also frequently read as a kind of real life self-help and inspiration for individuals struggling with addiction. I’m sure I don’t need to say it, but addiction is a deadly disease. The consequences of dishonesty, particularly of the kind Frey perpetrates, are actively damaging to this vulnerable subset of his audience. He claims to be offering a viable alternative to traditional rehab and AA. There is actually a scene that involves him walking straight into a bar the second he leaves Hazelden, sticking his nose into a beer, and, I guess, “fucking the bullshit (’cause it’s time to throw down).”
People took him seriously. For some, that was dangerous. Thankfully, for me it was just embarrassing.