James Frey Took A Fall For Us All

I was two months into my book contract for my first memoir when the Frey controversy broke.  I was riveted to the TV much as I had been on 9.11.2001. I know it’s heresy to compare a memoir scandal to the events of 9/11, but I’m just being honest here. That’s what us memoir types do, right?  And for me and for all writers of memoir and maybe even writers of fiction as well, that day and the dark Oprah days that followed were days of history making. A line was drawn in the sand between fiction and memoir. From now on there would be rules and we knew it.  A few weeks later my mother sent me a magazine article about the Frey debacle with a note clipped to it issuing the cheery encouragement: “Don’t let this happen to you!”

Today, Oprah did the first of her two interviews with Frey, five years after the A Million Little Pieces debacle.  And, once again I’m at the TV. But, my heart is nowhere near my throat this time. I’m curious, yes, but like most memoir writers I do know now what we roughly understand to be “the rules,” the unspoken contract between memoirist and reader that what you’re about to read lies somewhere in veracity between a lyrical poem and a court reporter’s notes, and when it veers toward the former, you will be warned in the Author’s Note. The author’s note is just one of the ways that our literary landscape has changed since Frey’s legendary Oprah visit in the Winter of 2006.  Now it is commonplace to for memoirs to begin with an Author’s Note, a disclaimer of sorts that gives a road map of where journalism ends and poetry begins.

But to understand why the Frey fall from grace was history making, we need to back up a bit.  Frey’s A Million Little Pieces first hit bookstores in 2003, which means he probably sold the book–I’m guessing–in 2001 or 2002 at the latest.  At that point in history, the memoir was in approximately its sixth year of its incarnation as an exploding literary genre, the literary equivalent of a first grader.  While there had always been lone wolf memoirs here and there to confuse the shelvers at Barnes and Noble–Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Baldwin’s Notes from a Native Son, Baker’s Growing Up, to name a few–memoir did not exist as a popular genre until the mid 90’s.  Before the mid-90’s writers who wanted to use their own lives as material–notably, Henry Miller, Jack Kerouac, Nora Ephron, Silvia Plath–were likely to write an autobiographical novel, a genre that would allow the writer to tell her own story and make stuff up as she pleased. No questions asked. Or relatively few. But in 1995, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club flew up the bestseller list as a memoir and the next year, 1996 , Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes followed the same upward trajectory.

The next year, 1997, is a significant year for me as it’s the year I started in a MFA program in Fiction. There were very few programs at that time in Creative Nonfiction, the genre that would have allowed me to write memoir, but I hadn’t heard of them until after I was already in the Fiction program. I don’t know for sure that I’d even heard of memoir.  In my first year of the fiction program, two things became clear: I had a very limited imagination for plot, and I was very interested in writing about my own experience.  I wrote these weird essay-ish short stories, and with the encouragement of my teacher, David Shields (if you want to read the most mind-exploding expose of life in the borderlands between fiction and memoir, read his book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto), I continued to blunder through–not assigning the word “memoir” to my work until 2001 when Brain, Child magazine published a long piece of mine about my family called “Women Like That, Like Us.”

It was around that time that I figure that Frey was running around New York, first shopping around his A Million Little Pieces as a novel and then finding no buyers, selling the manuscript as this new thing called memoir.   He said today in his return to the Oprah show that he’d been influenced by Henry Miller and in particular by the book The Tropic of Cancer (an autobiographical novel that would doubtless be sold as a memoir today) and that he hadn’t been thinking about what his book was while he was writing it.  He just wanted to write a book that affected young readers as The Tropic of Cancer had once moved him.  He’d thought of his book-in-progress not as memoir or a novel, but as “a statement of defiance.”  A self-taught writer, Frey had no professors or fellow students to debate what the writer’s obligation to the reader is or where the line before memoir and fiction lies. But even if he had been in school as I had been at the time, I don’t know for sure that he would have had the opportunity to discuss the ethics of memoir writing that would be commonplace in such programs today, in part because of Frey.

I don’t think Frey did the right thing. Ideally, he would have either published the book as fiction or as memoir with a hefty Author’s Note. He admits himself that he knew he was crossing the line, but I have to say, I understand it.   He says he saw himself as more of an artist than a writer. He says, “I was trying to write literature. I wasn’t trying to write a self-help book.” He says he was influenced by Picasso’s cubist self-portraits. It was 2001, and then 2003 and then 2006. It was the times, I’m telling you. It was the times.

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