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View Full Version : The inevitable James Frey-inspired discussion



Aconite
02-15-2006, 05:14 PM
This is Life Story Writing, so James Frey and his antics were bound to come up sooner or later. The publication of A Million Little Pieces raises questions that have been touched on many times in this forum, particularly, how far can you change the facts and still call the account a true story?

Patrick Nielsen Hayden has a fine discussion going on over at Making Light: "Fiction and Truth" (http://nielsenhayden.com/makinglight/archives/007215.html#007215). As with any essay on ML, the comment thread moves the discussion forward substantially, so don't miss it.

Aconite
02-17-2006, 07:49 PM
It really is okay to post here, everyone. Honest. Whatever you've heard about me, it isn't true.

Sheryl Nantus
02-17-2006, 08:38 PM
personally, I wouldn't change anything that could be verified with a little research.

I can't claim to be born in Montreal when I was born in Vancouver.
I can't claim to have a Ph.D. when I don't even have a B.A.
I can't claim to have spent ten years in a prison on a murder charge when I spent two weeks in juvenile detention for spraypainting graffiti on a subway car.

but then... that's just me.

:D

Shwebb
02-17-2006, 08:59 PM
I understand that some memoir authors might combine people and change events around a bit--maybe even condense the time line. But essentially, everything is true, to the best of their conscious ability.

That, to me, very different than fabricating and exaggerating whole, significant sections of a book. Not to mention plagiarism.

There are remarkable personal stories out there, and it's a shame that now every remarkable story will be viewed with skepticism.

So what does that leave us with, unless our lives are documented down to the minute details? What kind of paper trail are we going to need to back up our stories?

Aconite
02-17-2006, 10:23 PM
So what does that leave us with, unless our lives are documented down to the minute details? What kind of paper trail are we going to need to back up our stories?I've been thinking about that in a different way: do any of us not have paper trails for any event of note these days?

MacAllister
02-17-2006, 10:27 PM
Hmm--How about I play devil's advocate?

Why on earth are we falling apart over a novelization of the guy's life? Because the publisher called it a memoir? But aren't we all pretty much convinced that the word on the spine is really just to tell clerks where to shelve it?

Consider The Amityville Horror--is it less effective as a novel? A less seminal work of horror? It was originally published as nonfiction, too.

Shwebb
02-17-2006, 10:30 PM
What do you mean, Amityville Horror was fiction?!

(I thought it was all true, and it started with someone bringing a Ouiji board into the house.)

Mac, do you think it AH would have sold as well as fiction, at least, initially? As fiction, I'd have called it a "dime a dozen."

Shwebb
02-17-2006, 10:39 PM
I've been thinking about that in a different way: do any of us not have paper trails for any event of note these days?True--that's what caught Frey.

maestrowork
02-17-2006, 10:40 PM
Hmm--How about I play devil's advocate?

Why one earth are we falling apart over a novelization of the guy's life? Because the publisher called it a memoir? But aren't we all pretty much convinced that the word on the spine is really just to tell clerks where to shelve it?

Consider The Amityville Horror--is it less effective as a novel? A less seminal work of horror? It was originally published as nonfiction, too.

I think the problem people have is that non-fiction says "this is real -- that life is stranger than fiction!" People (however naive they are) tend to be drawn to true-life stories that are bizarre and twisted -- we are all reality TV/news/true story junkies. On top of it, there's an idea that someone cuts in line by calling fiction non-fiction. Out of 175,000 books published every year, only less than 5000 are fiction. The odds are stacked against novelists. So for a "novelist" to fake it and call his novel "non-fiction," he increases his odds of getting published. Not to mention, the quality "requirements" of non-fiction is less restricted than fiction. Non-fiction are more likely to be judged on content than on the quality of writing.

It has happened before and it will happen again (e.g. Amityville Horror). The question really is: is it ethical? Or does it fall in the category of "if it sells books, who cares?"

There's also the concept of crediblity. If someone could deliberately fabricate stories and call it real, how will we ever trust anyone who writes non-fiction? The answer probably is: You shouldn't trust everything you read anyway. But in this cynical world, I think something like what Frey did could only worsen this cynicism. Liars become winners, and nobody wants to play by the rules anymore.

So, I think the argument isn't whether a book is just as good or better as a novel than as "non-fiction." I think the issue is much bigger than that. Is publishing following the paths of TV and movies, where "truths" doesn't really that much compared to "entertainment value"?

MacAllister
02-17-2006, 10:41 PM
Mac, do you think it AH would have sold as well as fiction, at least, initially? As fiction, I'd have called it a "dime a dozen." Probably not, admittedly--but isn't that what publishers are supposed to do? Market the book to the very best of their ability? With the lines already so very fluid, just how wrong is this?

Aconite
02-17-2006, 10:59 PM
Why one earth are we falling apart over a novelization of the guy's life? Because the publisher called it a memoir? But aren't we all pretty much convinced that the word on the spine is really just to tell clerks where to shelve it?Well, as Uncle Jim says, the difference between real life and fiction is that fiction has to be believable. We expect certain things from novels that we might be willing to let slide in memoirs. The bar for writing quality is higher for fiction, for instance, and perhaps MLP wouldn't make it over that bar.

MacAllister
02-17-2006, 11:03 PM
Ahh--perhaps. But doesn't the fact that this book so profoundly affected so many readers argue for it's "truth" on some level? Even though it departs from a recitation of the facts, and just the facts?

Isn't there intrinsic value in that?

Aconite
02-17-2006, 11:20 PM
Ahh--perhaps. But doesn't the fact that this book so profoundly affected so many readers argue for it's "truth" on some level? Even though it departs from a recitation of the facts, and just the facts?

Isn't there intrinsic value in that?Absolutely.

Frey is still a pitiful lying skunk, and the book's still horribly written.

MacAllister
02-17-2006, 11:23 PM
Um... since I haven't actually even held a copy, much less read it, I'll have to defer to your greater knowledge, there. :)

So IS there room to fictionalize your story and still call it a memoir? And what about all those thinly-disguised autobiographical first novels? D'ya really thinkg the lines are as clear as all that?

Aconite
02-17-2006, 11:29 PM
So IS there room to fictionalize your story and still call it a memoir? And what about all those thinly-disguised autobiographical first novels? D'ya really thinkg the lines are as clear as all that?No, I don't think the lines are clear at all. We say memoirs and autobiographies are "true," for whatever value of truth we think we've found, and at the same time we recognize that nobody writes a purely truthful account, without embellishing or tweaking. What makes that different from "based on a true story"? I don't know. The implicit agreement that we'll pretend memoirs and autobiographies aren't fictionalized?

MacAllister
02-17-2006, 11:32 PM
The implicit agreement that we'll pretend memoirs and autobiographies aren't fictionalized? Wait--did we change goal zones, and I missed it?

That's exactly the problem--there IS an implicit agreement that this stuff is fictionalized. At least until someone stand and points and starts hollering about the emperor's wardrobe indiscretions.

Aconite
02-17-2006, 11:46 PM
Wait--did we change goal zones, and I missed it?Were we ever on two different teams?

MacAllister
02-17-2006, 11:47 PM
Naw--I think he's a lying freak, out to con everyone out of as much money as he can get away with.

Aconite
02-17-2006, 11:57 PM
Naw--I think he's a lying freak, out to con everyone out of as much money as he can get away with.Okay then. :)

Who else wants to chime in? Come one, come all. I have mod powers. I can give you special mod rep points for kickstarting discussions.

Shwebb
02-18-2006, 12:13 AM
Well, I can't begin to know "The MIND of OPRAH," but I could venture a guess as to why she initially defended him.

It seems that a lot of poor people gained inspiration from Frey's story--enough so that some folks made life-changing decisions as a result of reading that book. I'd bet that Oprah didn't want them to think they'd wasted their time on following a false prophet, so to speak.

I haven't read his book, either. I might, but it won't be because I bought it, though. I refuse to let that lying so-and-so to have any of my money.

I seriously doubt if his book would have been much of a blip if it had been marketed as fiction.

I do have an expectation regarding books classified as non-fiction.

BTW, did you know Laura Ingalls Wilder's "Prairie" books were classified as historical fiction?

MacAllister
02-18-2006, 12:26 AM
Really? No, Shwebb--I didn't know that about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember the Lorenzo Carcaterra book, Sleepers, though. There was a similar controversy over that.

Sheryl Nantus
02-18-2006, 12:32 AM
*scratches head*

hmm...

I think the problem is that when *I* pick up a memoir I expect to be told the truth - if I'm reading about a kid going through drug rehab or a pup going through basic training and then landing in the Gulf I expect there to be at least *some* connection to reality. If he's overcome tough odds to get to where he is I want to believe that others can do the same and that it *is* possible to move forward in life.

Frey basically fell back into the same routine that a lot of addicts (not just drug) get into - you lie and work your way around the truth. It's not an addiction, just a habit. It's not taking up all your money and time, it's just a hobby. It's not stealing from your family and friends for a fix, it's just getting a loan. When he sat there on Oprah and stated that he thought it was better to write that his girlfriend hung herself instead of slashing her wrists (in reality) I just couldn't believe it. That along with placing himself in the middle of the car crash that happened in his high school when he wasn't even friends with the kids killed. That's just... way beyond having a bad memory.

because we all like underdog stories. We all like hearing about the winners who pull it through; hit the puck into the net at the last minute of overtime, bash the homerun in game 7 of the World Series and all that.

but if we know the goalie wasn't there or that the other team had already left the field, then it cheapens the experience entirely. And makes us that much more suspicious of the next "great" story that comes along.

oh, look... hot coco-moo with marshmallows!

*wanders off*

Aconite
02-18-2006, 12:52 AM
Really? No, Shwebb--I didn't know that about Laura Ingalls Wilder. I remember the Lorenzo Carcaterra book, Sleepers, though. There was a similar controversy over that.The one I remember is The Education of Little Tree.

MacAllister
02-18-2006, 12:55 AM
The Education of Little Tree holy CRAP! That wasn't TRUE? I LOVED that book!

How about Farley Mowat and Cry Wolf?

This is getting depressing.

Shwebb
02-18-2006, 12:56 AM
I remember why they were classified that way--I was about ten or so, and I was looking in my school library for them. When I was told they were in the fiction section, well, obviously I still remember my shock.

I still think they would have been classified just as well as memoir.

Shwebb
02-18-2006, 12:58 AM
Of course, it just occurred to me that I could have just made up that story above. (I didn't, but how can we believe anything anymore?)

Sheryl Nantus
02-18-2006, 01:03 AM
heck, I just found out a few years ago about Frankie Goes To Hollywood's big song "Relax" was about... well, you know.

had no idea.

seriously.

Same with Duran Duran and "Reflex".

I'm SO naive.

:D

Former-Stripper
03-08-2006, 07:35 PM
I'm de-lurking just to add into this one.



I look at all AutoBio's like job resumes that folks submit to me =

I can reasonably expect they will be 'fluff-n-puffed' ,

but they should -never- be flat-out-d**ned lies.


Someone says they were part of a "Key member of Tiger Team that increased sales by 30% in less than 1 year", I can filter that to read "I was on a kick-butt sales team that beat our managerís expectations." And it had best not be "I met the sales force once while I cleaned their cubicles."


In AutoBio's and Bio's, I understand that it's all being filtered somehow.



The only pieces I'll even suspect as being Unvarnished Truth are those deliberately published after their demise as a last "Screw You" from the great beyond....


As for all the others:


If it's an AutoBio, I expect that everything will be slanted on to the "All the things I'm proud of I caused, all the bad were someone else's fault"


If it's a Bio, it'll either be a "Slanted to praise this person I adore/lust after/am inheriting their estate" love-festival, or a "Mommy-Dearest-hatchet job to forever denigrate/demean/despoil this person I hate/was rejected by/am inheriting their estate" Caesar-in-the-Senate-stab-festival.


But no matter what slant, I do feel I have the right to expect that the piece is "The Truth as I See It!" and not a knowing stack of bull....



Frey was a ding-dong for doing the puffery so -badly- that all it took was a few minutes in the public records to shake it all apart.



All the best lies are all the truth with creative editing. If he wanted to make the story with the same action, but make it less diagnosable, all he'd have to do is make it a Bio of "A person who wishes to remain anonymous, but wants their story told" with the caveat that "To protect the identity of my client, and of those innocents involved, some incidents have been altered to protect their identities.



He got confused between Ego and Prostate, and the swelling was too much....

Lauri B
03-14-2006, 03:51 AM
James Frey hit it big. Good for him. The problem was that when he did hit it big, he told everyone in every interview that what happened to him was the truth. And THEN he got caught because, as Mac says, he had a paper trail following him. The real reason he's in big trouble was that Oprah felt like she looked like an idiot and she was seriously bummed. I think it's pretty clear that no one should bum out the Big O.

Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are historical fiction--why would anyone think they were memoir? She never said that everything that happened in them was true, and why would it matter? They are terrific, terrific stories that evoke a time and place that we can all relate to. It's like trying to figure out who William Shakespeare really was. Why does anyone care if he was Edward DeVere or some barely literate guy or someone else? The work is still mighty fine.

Memoirs can't possibly be completely historically accurate, since the events are being filtered through the writer's perspective. I think what really got to so many people about the Frey book is that he was such a phony baloney rebel about the whole thing, pretending that he went kicking and screaming through rehab and was such a bad boy before, during, and after. When it turns out he made it all up he just looked like such a doofus that he made anyone who believed him also look like a doofus by association.

triceretops
03-14-2006, 04:28 AM
We, as writers, certainly expect and even demand ethical treatment from publishers and agents. We strive to live by our honor and trust with them, although it isn't always so sometimes. But we writers owe it to ourselves to be as ethical and forthright as possible, especially when we land the chance of putting a product out there that might be read and affect millions of people.

Tri

MacAllister
03-14-2006, 07:00 AM
Ultimately, we owe it to our readers to be true, to varying degrees of true--even in fiction. They can tell the difference, I think.

As a reader, I certainly know when something has a ring of authenticity--and when something feels too slippery to credit. I suspect that's why I though Holy Blood/Holy Grail was a fun, speculative romp through alternate history...but in no way could I credit it as scholarship.

Similarly, Frey constructed a slippery "Just Hang On" bullsh*t approach to licking serious chemical dependency problems--but then pedaled it as real. Ultimately, that's part of why people are bound to be angry.

Shwebb
03-15-2006, 08:58 AM
Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are historical fiction--why would anyone think they were memoir? She never said that everything that happened in them was true, and why would it matter? They are terrific, terrific stories that evoke a time and place that we can all relate to. It's like trying to figure out who William Shakespeare really was. Why does anyone care if he was Edward DeVere or some barely literate guy or someone else? The work is still mighty fine.

Memoirs can't possibly be completely historically accurate, since the events are being filtered through the writer's perspective. I think what really got to so many people about the Frey book is that he was such a phony baloney rebel about the whole thing, pretending that he went kicking and screaming through rehab and was such a bad boy before, during, and after. When it turns out he made it all up he just looked like such a doofus that he made anyone who believed him also look like a doofus by association.No one is saying that LEW's "Little House" books should be labeled as memoir; it's just that there is such a ring of truth to them I think people accept the stories as real. (I still believe that, for the most part, her stories are true and not crafted whole cloth from imagination.)

And she didn't need to sell it as memoir for people to be interested in her stories--the stories sold themselves, and we're back to the question of whether or not Frey's book would have sold if it had been marketed as a novel instead of memoir.

Aconite
03-15-2006, 04:31 PM
There's a difference between the slanting of events and their meanings that every human does as those events and meaning are filtered through our perceptions, or even consciously slanting them for an effect, and making sh*t up completely and saying it's true. That should go without saying, but certain people need to be tied to chairs and to have that explained to them until they get it.

MacAllister
03-16-2006, 01:31 PM
That should go without saying, but certain people need to be tied to chairs and to have that explained to them until they get it.And then, perhaps, those certain people would have valid experiences, interesting enough to write about--so they wouldn't need to just make sh*t up...:D

robeiae
03-18-2006, 04:57 AM
Probably not, admittedly--but isn't that what publishers are supposed to do? Market the book to the very best of their ability? With the lines already so very fluid, just how wrong is this?Free-market capitalist swine...

Rob :)

robeiae
03-18-2006, 05:09 AM
Seriously, I don't see why there is such a debate over this:

Memoir=written account of one's life, as he/she remembered it.

Intentionally fictionalizing elements of it is WRONG, is UNETHICAL, is a BETRAYAL of your readership's trust. Knowingly publishing a fictionalized memoir is WRONG, is UNETHICAL, is a BETRAYAL of your readership's trust.

Frey is a liar. Good for him that he was successful? BS. He should give back every cent he made, from an ethical point of view (legally, it's ridiculous to try to mandate such a thing).

But hey, we all of our own views on right and wrong, and I'm sure he sleeps just fine at night. I know I wouldn't.

Rob :)

Celia Cyanide
03-29-2006, 10:30 PM
Frey is a liar. Good for him that he was successful? BS. He should give back every cent he made, from an ethical point of view (legally, it's ridiculous to try to mandate such a thing).

Stephen King made a very interesting point about this. "Addiction is a liar's disease." He knows a thing or two about addition, and he's right. We don't have to like it, but we shouldn't really be surprised if someone gets right out of rehab, tells his story, and lies.


But hey, we all of our own views on right and wrong, and I'm sure he sleeps just fine at night. I know I wouldn't.

I wouldn't either, but I also don't like the fact that people care more about whether or not something is literally true than whether or not it is well written. That's part of my view of right and wrong.

KTC
04-15-2006, 09:23 PM
I classified Frey as fire starter. shove it deep inside your fire pit, light a match and it really gets things going. Other than that, I suppose you could put it in your outhouse in case you run out of toilet paper. I wouldn't wipe my azz with it, though.