You’re Busted

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I’ve never been a big fan of modern memoirs. These days, it seems that most of what populates the nonfiction bestseller lists veers toward the treacly or the titillating–pop-culture confessionals that celebrate victimhood as virtue or parade the worst kind of bad taste. Honestly, why would anyone plunk down their hard-earned cash to delve into Paris Hilton’s sex life? Well, obviously there’s a market for it, otherwise publishers wouldn’t be offering handsome advances for these tell-all books.

Don’t get me wrong–as an author, I firmly believe that if you can make money on your story then more power to ya. But as the recent episode with James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces shows, there’s a real danger in offering too much incentive to tell a juicy tale. Nor is Frey the only one to sell fiction as his life story. He just happens to be the example du jour, caught in the act of lying to Oprah. If he hadn’t peddled his wares on her show, he might well have stayed under the radar.

All of which raises an uncomfortable point: Just how far have we blurred the line between fact and fiction? In an age where “emotional truth” trumps reality, how can anyone be sure of anything? The fact is, we’re all at the mercy of these authors to give us the real deal–including the editors who work on their books and the publishers that distribute them. Given the present media climate, I think the best we can do–as with all forms of media–is take everything with a hearty grain of salt. If a guy’s life sounds too outrageous to be true, it probably is.

Hate to boil it all down to caveat emptor for the reader, but there you have it.

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  1. Derek  February 7, 2006

    I had a long discussion with my wife about that issue as well. She seems to be under the Oprah umbrella regarding how horrible it is that this guy tried passing off fiction as a memoir. Though, supposedly, he tried selling the novel as fiction first, and it didn’t get any bites, so he flipped it to a memoir and boom! sold the novel.

    I shrug my shoulders. Personnally, as a writer, I don’t see the big deal. He sold his novel — fiction or memoir; memoir or fiction. And people ate it up. Whether they ate it up _because_ it was a memoir can be debated, but what it comes down to is the public bit, including Oprah.

    Being a JT Leroy fan myself, do you think I’m disheartened that he, himself, is a product of fiction? Not at all. I’m not surprised either, nor do I feel robbed, hurt, or angry. In fact, I think it’s ingenious. You have to take everything in this world with a grain of salt, and if you can’t do that, then you probably shouldn’t be reading memoirs or anything else for that matter.

  2. Marc G  February 8, 2006

    I don’t take much issue with it myself–only that fiction should be clearly labeled as such. It’s kind of like the insidious creep of opinion into purported news pieces, or some of the recent paid punditry scandals. Coming from a jouralism background, I always thought these things anathema to truth. What you see really is what you should get as a consumer–but, alas, drama wins out over fact every time.

  3. Sue Lange  February 12, 2006

    Butting in here with my 2cents: I can’t tell you how mortified I was when I found out Fargo was not a true story. It would have been a great movie regardless, but the little statement that it was a true story meant a lot to me, because it seemed so real in a better than fiction way. To find out it was after all fiction, makes me doubt whether or not truth can in fact be stranger than fiction.

    At any rate, I think passing off a juicy story as something that happened to me is rather low-down, but I do tend to take memoirs with a grain of salt. I never believe anything anybody says about themselves. Everyone lives in denial, exaggerates, and puts themself in the best light possible.

    Having said all that I must add: good marketing ploy.

    Nice site by the way. I like the image to the left here.

  4. Marc G  February 14, 2006

    Hey, Sue! Always happy to have a fellow author post on the site!

    I remember the Fargo thing too–still not sure why the Coens decided to stick that card in there, but it sure did lend an even more bizarre feel to a truly bizarre film. Maybe that was the point, after all. Given their penchant for surreal cinema, I’d like to think that vs. just a cheap marketing ploy.

    Yeah, I expect healthy embellishment from memoirs–that’s only natural, and I think readers pretty much understand that as well. But man, when you’re making stuff up out of whole cloth, you’ve definitely crossed the fact/fiction line. The problem, I think, is that the temptation to sell this stuff as fact is too great. Sure, a good novel can point out the truth inside the lie–but since nonfiction tends to sell a lot better than even bestselling fiction, there’s a real incentive to market these books as memoirs. Want proof? A Million Little Pieces got turned down flat as a novel when Frey’s agent marketed it. But as a memoir? An instant phenomenon!

    Kind of makes me glad I do straight-up fiction. Less complicated, in any case…