No doubt you are troubled today by the recent news that James Frey, author of the memoir “A Million Little Pieces” is alleged to have made up significant parts of his book, which you had recently chosen for your book club. Frey is hardly the first memoirist to face such charges. Augusten Burroughs, author of “Running with Scissors,” was recently sued by the crazy family he lived with when he was younger, the family at the heart of his book, who now argue that the book should be shelved in the “fiction” section at Barnes and Noble.
I’m reminded, Oprah, of something Lucy Grealy, the author of the memoir “Autobiography of a Face,” supposedly said at a reading she gave at a bookstore in New York City.
“It’s amazing how you remember everything so clearly,” a woman in the audience said. “All those conversations, those details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?”
“I didn’t remember it,” Lucy said. “I wrote it. I’m a writer.”
Her comment didn’t go over so well, as you can imagine. After all, when a reader buys a book of nonfiction, she establishes a contract with the writer, in which it’s expected that the writer will tell the truth, and not make things up. A broken contract leads to feelings of betrayal and, as you are witnessing, occasional media scrutiny.
Of course Lucy wasn’t really at fault. She merely pulled back the curtain on the memoirist’s process, and revealed certain details that many of her peers would rather remain hidden. The dirty little secret of memoirs is that nearly all of them contain inventions. Honestly, can any of us remember, word-for-word, conversations we had yesterday, much less when we were sixteen? The day we lost our virginity in the woods near our house (hypothetically speaking, of course), was that a crushed can of Budweiser or Schlitz just off the hiking path? And the sky: cloudy, blue, white? Did our special friend smoke a Marlboro or a Kool afterwards, as we caught our breath against a tree, underwear bunched down around our ankles? And were they Calvins, or Fruit of the Looms?
You get my point. By name alone, a memoir is an act of memory, and memory is always fallible. The best most memoirists can do is to try and keep to the spirit of past events, past conversations, past conquests, and choose the details that best honor that spirit. How closely they keep to that spirit is a matter of personal preference on the part of the writer. Recently a certain author opened her memoir with a scene in which her tyrannical father burst into her bedroom, snatched her typewriter from her desk, and threw it out the window. Later the tyrannical father disputed this incident, and after much careful reflection, the author admitted that the father had actually just unplugged the damn thing.
I believe, Oprah, that in the right hands, the truth of that scene could be rendered such that the act of unplugging could be just as dramatic as the old heave-ho out the window.
Which brings us to Frey, the author of your recent book club selection, who may have embellished certain details of his arrest, burn-out, and recovery from drug addiction for the sake of heightened dramatic intensity. Oprah, beware writers who talk about heightened dramatic intensity. It usually means they’re making things up. And now you and your lawyers have a mess on your hands.
I’m troubled, Oprah. Troubled that these recent allegations will influence you to steer clear of memoirs for future book club selections, thereby depriving millions of readers many heart-felt, moving, triumphant true-life stories. I’m troubled that you’ll play it a little safe, and pick novels from now on, and between you and me, girl, fiction ain’t selling so hot these days.
Surely you must be tossing and turning at night, anxious that you will never again find such a memoir, written by someone who has rock-solid integrity, someone who would never use the phrase heightened dramatic intensity when describing their work.
Good news. Oprah, I am that writer.
And I am fully prepared to step into the role of honest author, for the sake of your book club. Not only does my memoir contain drug addiction and recovery, but I have not needed to embellish the tale for dramatic effect. It’s that good, that moving, that triumphant. And there’s more. Would you believe, Oprah, that my memoir also includes poignant coming-of-age recollections of a young homosexual who was raised by not one, but TWO homosexual parents?!? Think about it, Oprah. Think how hot gay marriage is right now. Think of the millions of readers who could be moved by such a story. Drug addiction AND gays. It’s simply breathtaking.
Furthermore, Oprah, should you decide to have me appear on your show, (for the sake of your readers, of course), I promise to floss, and to buy a new suit with the gazillions of dollars modest profit I’d make from sales of my book. And I promise not to jump up and down on your couch.
No, I am not yet finished with my amazing memoir. But with your support and encouragement, I would devote myself fully to the task of pleasing you and your worthy fans, and I’d kick it out in a few months, provided there was a big fat modest advance from my publisher, just to put food on my table, a table at which I would be working night and day, Oprah, night and day.
Do yourself and your fans a tremendous, life-changing favor. Call me.