Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Debating quasi-fiction: what is a memoir?

James Frey pissed off Oprah.

This much we know. The whole situation made me wonder, however, how much does the general reading public know about literature? In general, I mean.

Memoir: (noun) 1. A historical account or biography written from personal knowledge or special sources; an autobiography or a written account of one's memory of certain events or people. 2. an essay on a learned subject; the proceedings or transactions of a learned society. (Oxford American Dictionaries)

The emphasis there is obviously mine, and of course it is meant to prove a point. James Frey pissed off Oprah because his memoir was fictionalized. What scholars of literature may learn at university includes a discussion on fiction vs. nonfiction, and lots and lots of semantics. It seems to me that James Frey pissed off Oprah because Oprah's definition (or perhaps her fans' definition) of memoir is very much the first part of the first definition--she wanted the account to be historically accurate. Please note, however, that accuracy is not included in the definition. And good writers embellish to make good writing--all the time!

Nan Talese felt she was ambushed
on Oprah's show, and this is the reason I bring this up today. She was told the show would be about James Frey only minutes before the show aired. She was told there was a change in the show's plan. For live television. They had a last-minute change in their entire show that all the producers had been working on for so long.

It made great television, and Talese was used toward that end. Her vigor in defending herself, and publishers by proxy, shows her anger toward Oprah and the whole situation. Good journalism means you must use the element of surprise, I guess.

It just seems to me that Oprah was upset because she'd defended Frey, and felt she'd been made to look like a fool. Frey and Talese both were made to look like fools on her show. The audience clearly thought memoir=absolute truth. The general viewing (and presumably, Oprah-book-reading) public thought the same, as well, judging by the response the show got. There was a lot of press around this issue. The publisher was ordered by a judge to give folks their money back!

That seems to me, in America, very extreme. A scholar of literature myself, I don't have a problem with a memoir being fictionalized. Memoirs are entertainment--competing with other forms of entertainment, such as bike riding, seeing a movie, or drinking oneself into a stupor. A memoir isn't a "how-to" nonfiction book, designed to instruct the reader. A memoir is a collection of memories. All of our memories are colored by our emotions at the time. I hate certain songs on the radio because they were on the radio when my first serious boyfriend broke up with me. This doesn't mean the music is bad. I might write it that way, however, and that is my right. I might also fictionalize parts of the story to make it more engaging to read, rather than, "He broke up with me. I cried for a week."

I digress. I think this whole situation is made very sticky by the fact that Oprah herself is also in the entertainment business. Ripping Frey a new one on her show was sure to be good television. Having unprepared reactions from Nan Talese would also make good television. But this situation was borne from a simple misunderstanding of literature, in my opinion. Talese didn't get to say much of what she wanted to say on that show, as she felt "ambushed."

I think this whole thing is an example of folks going along with the crowd. In this case, I wonder if Oprah felt compelled to go along with it, because so many folks in the viewing public were upset. Let's remember---many of those folks are not literature scholars! It seems to me that Oprah was trying to put a scholarly bent on things when she called up Larry King and tried to defend Frey. I just don't think the public, in general, was academically prepared to hear it.

And that's okay. We are not all scholars of literature.

I love that Oprah gets people to read. Are they reading other things, though? Or just what she recommends? Getting to be an author on her show is The Show--like being put in the major league of baseball. It's the big win. Instant best-seller, right there, overnight. Not many authors at all get that chance, and it is random chance. It's one woman, controlling what goes on her show, and what influences the minds of millions. I suppose she felt a responsibility to all those folks who expressed their outrage at being duped.

And perhaps Nan Talese feels a responsibility to tell her side of the truth. She is telling her memoir. We must all decide if it is fiction, or not.

Caveat emptor, people.


  1. I wrote about this instance too but didn't involve the publisher.

    I agree with you...all this stuff came down on Oprah's watch, so to speak. Even though I'm not a fan, I can understand her outrage when she promoted this book to the hilt.

    It is an incredible book, and I've known enough addicts to know that what you don't remember...you make up. Even if it's something small, when you're in a haze of drugs and/or alcohol, you make it up just to show that you have a life even though that life revolves around ingestion of harmful substances.

    Good entry - very good!

  2. Mmm... He made up pretty big stuff, and there's police records to back up what actually happened. Like, his story that he ran down a cop and then got involved in a melee? The police record for that date shows he was cited for an open container in his car. That's a tad more than embellishment.

    And his time in prison? "When recalling criminal activities, looming prison sentences, and jailhouse rituals, Frey writes with a swaggering machismo and bravado that absolutely crackles. Which is truly impressive considering that, as TSG discovered, he made much of it up. The closest Frey has ever come to a jail cell was the few unshackled hours he once spent in a small Ohio police headquarters waiting for a buddy to post $733 cash bond."

    See this link for a pretty good article on the discrepancies:


  3. Does anyone remember the "memoir" Go Ask Alice, from the 1970s? It was written by "Anonymous," and was an account of a young girl's descent into drugs and debauchery.

    It was fabricated by a group of YA authors. Where was the uproar about that book? A completely fabricated memoir, published and widely distributed--and no big scandal when it is revealed that the entire thing is fictional.

    I understand why Oprah was pissed--she was made to look like a fool when she defended him on Larry King, presumably on the spur of the moment, if that exists in "live" television anymore. She then had him on her show, and ripped him a new one.

    I just wonder how anyone can verify the accounts in a memoir that is benign. How can we know that someone is ever telling the truth on paper, when they say something is "memoir?"