Drawing the Line in Memoir

American literary scandals are few and far between, but the flap over fabrications in James Frey's best-selling memoir A Million Little Pieces has echoed among writers and readers around the country. WHQR's Megan Williams looked into how the scandal has played out among local writers...

Wilmington, NC, February 15, 2006 – No one in UNCW's Creative Writing Department argues that an author can write about serving prison time, when they didn't, describe a litany of crimes and arrests that never happened, and still call their book a memoir. That aside, James Frey's fabrications have added new, and juicy, fuel to what turns out to be a never-ending discussion: where writers should draw the line between fiction, and non. For many in the MFA program, the whole idea of that line is a headache.

In the ten member graduate non-fiction workshop, student Pat Bjorklund says such distinctions should be an afterthought for a writer, not a guiding force. "I came into this program as a writer," she says. " I resented, you know, this is fiction. I thought I would figure it all out after I wrote it."

She continues, "there's so many different designations and I think a lot of it is about marketing. What is creative nonfiction? I think it gives me some license. I also think I have write a story that speaks to people and it's based on my life and if you asked my father or mother that story it wouldn't come out the same at all."

The comment gets nods from Bjorklund's classmates. Their professor, Virginia Holman, herself the author of a memoir titled Rescuing Patty Hearst, lays out the genre's problematic areas. No one is really expected to remember conversations verbatim, she says, but "trickier issues come up when authors need to do things like alter characters for privacy, for legal reasons. And I think I'm of the mind that the only way that can be handled with integrity is by having a disclaimer saying what was done."

Those notes can cover anything from, "names and identities have been changed to protect the guilty" - which is how UNCW MFA student Shawna Kenney's describes the disclaimer on her memoir I was a Teenage Dominatrix - to James Frey's brand-new, full page apologia in the front of A Million Little Pieces. For Holman, that page is part of the writer's compact with the reader.

She explains, "Creative nonfiction writers have an obligation to tell their readers how to read the book. And I think that's imperative on the writer. I think it would really be a shame, I think there's a real pall that's been cast on creative nonfiction and memoirs right now."

The pall isn't just James Frey. In San Francisco, J.T. LeRoy, an author who claimed to be a teen-aged ex-hustler and child abuse survivor, was recently revealed to be a 40-year-old woman. And here in North Carolina, a newspaper traced the social security number of an author claiming to be Navajo, back to a white man. It remains to be seen if these unmaskings will hurt the genre's sales though. American readers have long preferred non-fiction to novels and short stories, and for several years now, memoirs have been a hot genre. Which means it's easier to publish a book that claims it's true. For some of these would-be authors, that makes the temptation James Frey may have faced, is all too obvious.

MFA student Joel Moore says he can sort of empathize. "I'd obviously like to empathize a little more and sell a million copies. But I understand he was basically just a loser who was trying to make himself seem cool. Which is I think what most of us are trying to do, make ourselves seem a lot cooler than we really are. Maybe I should just speak for myself on that one..." he trails off to laughter from his classmates.

For the creative writing department's fiction writers, this whole thing's a bit baffling. Not because they're not concerned about the wall between truth and creation, but because they can't imagine how fabricated memoirs manage to elude what one fiction writer compares to Carrie's hand emerging from the grave at the end of the Steven King movie. Professor Wendy Brenner says, "just when you think you've gone through all of the proof-reading and all of the editing, you get one more fact checker calling up, you know, 'We just noticed this word...'"

In Brenner's case, she once had to change a fictional hamster into a fictional ferret to adhere to the laws of veterinary science. It makes her suspect that large-scale misrepresentations like Frey's would have had to slip under the willfully blind eyes of an editor searching for the next big book. She doesn't see that as presenting too much temptation to most writers, though.

She says it's just not that easy to whip up a book. "If I started writing my memoir right now because I wanted to capitalize on this, by the time I'm done writing it could be that novels have come back, or short stories, or poetry. Maybe poetry will be the next big thing now that memoirs have been exposed as fraud."

As the curious case of James Frey slips from editorial pages into more esoteric writing forums, it remains to be seen if his scandal will redraw the literary lines around fact and fiction, or end up merely a footnote.

Megan Williams, WHQR News

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