Uninspired by True Events

“James Frey is an asshole,” someone said to me recently during a discussion about Frey’s most recent endeavors. I don’t disagree.

Four years after The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey had exaggerated parts of his memoir A Million Little Pieces, about triumphing over addiction, he’s back in the news with his own fiction company Full Fathom Five. Frey’s been doling out miserable contracts to young MFA students for practically no pay to write commercial works they won’t own the rights to in order to create high-profit, low-overhead literary franchises. Right: asshole.

Beyond questions of character, this also confirms what I had always thought about Frey’s memoir and all his subsequent babbling about “truth” – he doesn’t really care as long as the money comes in. Frey has said repeatedly that he would have published Pieces as fiction, but there’s no way it would have sold as well, because frankly, it’s just not very good. So instead, he slapped a nonfiction label on it, did his song and dance on Oprah, and cashed his check. And when he got caught, he backed off for a bit, apologized, and then later said he regretted apologizing because he believes, like a freshman after one semester of philosophy, that really, there’s no such thing as objective truth.

I’m tempted to end the essay here having said nothing other than that Frey’s an asshole, but the problem is it’s not just Frey. He’s part of a whole class of opportunists to whom “nonfiction” is for literature what “inspired by true events” is for movies – a marketing device. Take Hostel, the Eli Roth scare-flick about backpackers being tortured in dimly lit rooms, which was inspired by the “true event” of Eli Roth receiving a link to a website that said “you could go to Thailand, pay ten thousand dollars to go into a room and shoot someone in the head.” OK, sure – but I still don’t think the film’s novelization should be listed as “nonfiction.”

On the other hand, the backlash after nonfiction literary scandals is equally crazy. Academics and writers alike insist “nonfiction” is about factual truth: that’s what distinguishes it from fiction. Under this definition, any exaggeration is practically heresy. After the Frey affair, Alex Heard published a ridiculous eight-page New Republic piece entitled “This American Lie,” in which he took humorist David Sedaris to task for exaggerating and fabricating. “There’s a simple rule” in nonfiction, Heard wrote, “don’t make things up.”

This is the kind of sentiment I hear from time to time in my own MFA nonfiction program. If Frey represents those for whom truth means nothing and therefore everything is permissible in nonfiction, then the other logical extreme is those for whom truth means everything and is precisely what legitimizes nonfiction.

The problem is that neither of those positions is tenable. Heard et al’s concept of nonfiction isn’t even antiquated – it’s flat-out wrong. David Shields, who recently published his “manifesto” Reality Hunger, comes much closer: “Fiction gives us a rhetorical question: ‘What if this happened?’ (The best) nonfiction gives us a statement, something more complex: ‘This may have happened.’” It’s a nuanced distinction, but an important one.

The question isn’t really whether you’re allowed to exaggerate in nonfiction, but more importantly what that exaggeration amounts to – does it make a story more or less true? “In any war story, but especially a true one…when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed,” Tim O’Brien writes. Authorial changes to make a story more true to the messy, subjective human experience may simultaneously reduce a memoir’s verifiable accuracy, but that doesn’t necessarily threaten its status as nonfiction. Nonfiction can work with metaphor as deftly as fiction can to convey something uniquely true about its author. Take Lauren Slater’s “metaphorical memoir” Lying, about her struggle with epilepsy: “I’m not saying I’m making the whole thing up – but if I were, I would be doing it not to create a character as a novelist does, but, instead, to create a metaphor that conveys the real person I am…even those things that are not literally true about me are metaphorically true about me, and that’s an important point.”

People who insist on nonfiction’s objective truth are dismissing its power as literature to convey deeper truths precisely through manipulation and allegory. But people like Frey are doing something much more sinister. They’re not making changes to make their memoirs more true, but rather to make them fit more comfortably into the molds we already understand.

The false memoirs that generate the most outrage – including Frey’s – tend to all fall into the category of “redemptive memoir.” That is, they’re about the author’s fall and subsequent triumph over an extraordinary obstacle, internal or external. They’re the kind of stories we want to believe are true, because we secretly hope they’re about our own lives. That’s why there’s such an uproar when they turn out to be false, because we worry that if these stories aren’t true, well then shit, maybe we can’t change our lives; maybe we don’t have it in us; maybe it’s not possible. But most of these stories offer reductive concepts of the challenges we face anyway. Addiction, in the case of Frey, is a lifelong struggle; it isn’t triumphed over in the conventional sense. Feeding people what they want to hear may sell books – but that doesn’t make it true.

I’ll admit that I don’t know exactly where nonfiction lies. It’s hard to pin down its boundaries. It’s not journalism or fiction, though it occasionally wades into the territory of both. But I can tell you for certain what nonfiction definitely isn’t: a bullshit way to sell bad fiction.

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